DNA contract reveals plan to probe offenders’ families

Now you see it, now you don’t: A proposed $300,000 contract between Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and a British DNA lab provided for software that would help track down criminals by identifying their relatives.

The method, called “familial searching,” is rarely used in the United States because of privacy concerns, although California Attorney General Jerry Brown has said he would consider opening the state database to such searches on a case-by-case basis. The FBI is exploring its use as well.

Rackauckas removed the “familial searching” provision from the 30-page contract with Forensic Science Service last week after an aide to John Moorlach, chairman of the board of supervisors, started asking questions. Rackauckas said Monday he doesn’t want the controversy surrounding familial searches to derail his effort to build a DNA database of people convicted of local misdemeanors. So far the database has 4,000 samples.

“I don’t want to risk the contract for an ancillary function that we may not even use,” Rackauckas said. “It was something I believe is a good investigative tool…but if I’m going to start getting push-back from various people, I don’t think we need it.”

The amended one-year contract, pulled from the Sept. 16 agenda by Moorlach and chief-of-staff Mario Mainero, will go before the board on Tuesday — with a $50,000 reduction.

But that doesn’t mean Rackauckas is giving up on familial searching. He’s just putting it on the back-burner, letting the state, FBI and other jurisdictions take the lead in exploring the method and fighting the legal challenges.

Authorities in the United Kingdom have solved several high-profile murders by finding people whose DNA closely matched the offender, usually siblings, parents or offspring. Investigators then focused on the relatives in an attempt to identify the criminal. Such methods are used only on violent crimes when a direct match is not found.

Still, privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and some scientists see familial searching as a form of genetic surveillance of the innocent.

“It is guilt by blood,” said Michael Risher, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. “Because your brother did something 50 years ago, you’re going to be a suspect in an unsolved case.”

Risher said the genetic tactic expands the DNA database from people arrested in a crime to their families, putting the spotlight of suspicion on them.

David Lazer, a Harvard professor and author of “DNA and the Criminal Justice System,” said the debate comes down to a delicate balance between privacy and security.

“I am deeply troubled by effectively placing people under genetic surveillance just because they are related to people pulled in by the system,” Lazer said. “I am also deeply troubled if all you had to do was click a button and use some shoe leather to catch a serial rapist (and you didn’t).”

Local prosecutors, however, say that familial searching led to the arrest of the famous “BTK” killer in Kansas — who eluded authorities for three decades until they tied DNA from the crime scene to his daughter. To ignore family DNA is to possibly let criminals run free, prosecutors say.

Camille Hill, an Orange County deputy district attorney assigned to DNA cases, said it is a shame for lab technicians to sit on matches that are not close enough to be the offender, but are close enough to be a family member.

“You can’t just ignore that,” Hill said. “You have a match that close, you need to see where it goes.”