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Friday, July 21, 2006


The FBI is allowing crime labs to use DNA databases to locate family members of suspects who appear to have left DNA evidence at crime scenes but for whom a complete genetic match cannot be made, a controversial practice that alarms privacy advocates.

The interim policy, which went into ffect last Friday, applies to federal investigations and situations where a crime has been committed in one state but the DNA of a potential relative is contained in another state's database. States are free to set their own policies for purely in-state investigations.

State and federal investigators routinely compare crime scene DNA to the genetic profiles of more than 3.2 million Americans, most of them convicted criminals, contained in the nation's computerized DNA databases. In federal and interstate investigators, the FBI allowed labs to report only exact DNA matches.

But, sometimes DNA left at a acrime scene shares several---but not all---of the genetic markers of a DNA profile already in the database. Such a partial match could indicate that the perpetrator of an unsolved crime is a close relative of a known criminal.

Under the plan, the FBI will allow state crime labs for the first time to tell investigators the names of people who DNA partially matches that found on evidence at a crime scene. Thomas Callaghan, who oversees the DNA database system, and Joseph DiZinno, director of the FBI crime lab, told U.S. News. Police then would investigate the close relatives of the known offender. "This is a very significant change. It begins to maximize the potential of the database," says Chris Aspien, the former director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, and now an attorney at Smith Alling Lane. "It helps police zero in on the real perpetrator."

But critics and privacy advocates call the practice tantamount to lifelong genetic surveillance. Critics charge that partial matches turn potentially innocent people into suspects simply because they are related to someone whose DNA is already on file.

The searches could also lead to people who are unrelated, but still share some of the same genetic information.

The changes come amid a rapid expansion of DNA technology in law enforcement. While it's now common to keep DNA profiles of convicted felons, more and more states track people convicted of misdemeanors---in some cases as minor as shoplifting and vandalism---or those simply arrested. The idea of using databases to track close relatives has been discussed with the law enforcement community for several years, but has been used rarely.

Under the interim policy, the FBI must approve each request to report a partial match. Even if given approval, state labs may opt not to report the match if state law or lab policy prevents them from doing so. Callaghan and DiZinno said the bureau's scientific advisory board would review the plan before any final policy is set.

Prosecutors said partial matches would help only a handful of cases. But the FBI's actions may prompt states to allow partial matches more often. State crime labs have always been free to conduct partial matches for purely in-state investigations. But, most state laws don't address the issue and many labs don't report them, citing the old FBI policy.

Callaghan and DiZinno say the FBI has no plans to use a more controversial technique known as "familial searching," in which investigators deliberately search the DNA database for a list of people most genetically similar to crime scene evidence. "That is very different from what we are currently doing," said Callaghan.

But, says Frederick Bieber, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, "relatives who are potential suspects will still be 'identified' through the FBI's appraoch. "Regardless of what you call the various approaches, they all have the same goal."

Source of Information: USNews-Inside Washington
July 20, 2006


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