July 15, 2020 Feature

A Practitioner’s Guide to Police Use of Genealogy Sites and the Fourth Amendment

Antony Barone Kolenc
How does the fourth amendment apply to police using private genealogy websites for warrantless expeditions without probable cause?

How does the fourth amendment apply to police using private genealogy websites for warrantless expeditions without probable cause?

Jasmin Merdan | GettyImages

Law enforcement agents in California caught the alleged Golden State Killer—the serial murderer and rapist who eluded capture for over 40 years after terrifying Californians in the 1970s and 80s. Despite intense public scrutiny, traditional investigation techniques hadn’t broken that cold case for decades. But in 2018, the police ingeniously found a suspect by creating a profile on GEDmatch, a free, publicly available genealogy website. Officers uploaded to the site DNA results obtained from the killer’s crime scenes, finding a distant relative to the killer and developing a family tree. After mistakenly homing in on two other suspects, police eventually obtained a sample of discarded DNA from a third suspect (Joseph De Angelo), an ex-cop whose DNA matched that of the killer. See Antony Barone Kolenc, “23 and Plea”: Limiting Police Use of Genealogy Sites After Carpenter v. United States, 122 W. Va. L. Rev. 53, 54–55, 96 (2019).

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