A recent bill passed by the Utah Legislature would put guard rails on how law enforcement uses genetic genealogy data obtained from public databases during investigations.
Senate Bill 156, known as the Sherry Black bill, allows genetic testing customers who use databases such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe to consent to their information being searchable by law enforcement. The bill also adds protections, such as by preventing law enforcement from making an arrest solely based on data obtained from genetic testing database searches.
“[Law enforcement] has to be using only databases that have made the consumer aware that [their] data could be used for that purpose,” bill sponsor Senator Steve Eliason told KSL News.
According to the Center for Genetics and Society, 100 million people had taken at-home DNA tests by 2021. Although police can search some public databases that allow users to opt in to having their data used by police, some of the biggest companies have yet to make this possible. Ancestry — which is based in Utah — and 23andMe do not allow users to consent to their data being used by law enforcement, which means detectives cannot use data obtained from the companies, thus hindering investigations.
This bill aims to change that by giving users a clear way to consent to their data being used. It also would make it so if a relative opts in, your own genetic information may be discoverable as well.
In addition, the bill limits law enforcement genetic searches to investigations for violent crimes and excludes users who choose to not provide their information to law enforcement.
Before now, there have been few regulations regarding the use of such data by law enforcement. “One of the important things to note, up until this bill passed, there were no guard rails in place in state law, it was kinda a free-for-all,” Eliason said.
The bill is named after Sherry Black, who was murdered at her bookstore in South Salt Lake in 2010. At the time of the murder, police could not trace the suspect’s DNA because he was not in the Unified Police Department’s database.
Using genetic genealogy research, a UPD detective uploaded the suspect’s DNA to a public database and began forming a family tree, which ultimately led police to the suspect 10 years after the murder.
However, the bill requires more evidence than just genetic links to obtain an arrest warrant.
“If you look at this bill… it actually talks about that specific situation,” said COLD radio host Dave Cawley. “They can’t just have a criminal investigator use a genetic genealogy link to charge somebody. It is a step in the process. But it by itself can’t be used as grounds to make the arrest.”
Representatives Tyler Clancy (R-Provo) and Matthew Gwynn (R-Farr West), who are both police officers, said the bill would maintain individuals’ rights to privacy while also allowing officers to use a valuable tool efficiently without first obtaining a warrant — unless a user does not opt in.
“It’s kind of ironic that a law enforcement officer would rise in support of a bill that restricts law enforcement’s ability to use a tool,” Clancy said. “However, as someone who wholeheartedly believes in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, it’s important that we protect our privacy. It’s important that we protect our individual freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, which is what this bill does.”
Clancy also pointed out that genetic genealogy can be used not just to convict suspects, but also to prove their innocence.
“As a law enforcement officer, it does us no good if we swing the pendulum of justice onto this heavy hand where it’s only about prosecution. I believe this bill is fair because it also allows for exoneration,” he said.
If approved by Governor Spencer Cox, the new law would take effect this summer.