According to the New Jersey lawsuit, police had reopened an investigation into a cold case and used genetics to match the suspect to a single family: one of several adults or their children. But police have yet to have a probable cause to obtain DNA swab warrants from any of them. Instead, they asked the state’s newborn screening lab for a blood sample from one of the children.
Analysis of this genetic information revealed a close relationship between the baby’s DNA and DNA extracted from the crime scene, suggesting that the baby’s father was the person police were looking for. That was enough to establish a probable cause for investigating the attack, and police sought a cheek swab warrant from the father. After analyzing his DNA, the suit claims, police found it matched DNA from the crime scene.
Jennifer Sellitti, an attorney with the New Jersey Public Defender’s office representing the father, says combining newborn screening samples with genetic genealogy opens the door to using virtually anyone’s DNA in a criminal investigation. “It’s like a dystopian onion. Every time we peel off another layer, we find another invasion of privacy,” she says.
The lawsuit is against the New Jersey Department of Health and the state laboratory that performs newborn screening. In an email to WIRED, Nancy Kearney, a spokeswoman for the department, said they are not commenting on pending litigation. She did not respond to a request for more general comment on the department’s policies regarding the storage or use of newborn screening specimens.
When asked by WIRED, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police also said the agency is not commenting on pending litigation. A representative from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, which is representing the state in the filing lawsuit, said the office had no comment.
Genetic genealogy was most famously used to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State hit man in 2018. Since then, it has been used by US law enforcement to solve hundreds of violent crime cases, many of which have been cold for years. The technology is powerful because it gives police access to DNA databases outside of their traditional jurisdiction.
Until recently, the main database available to law enforcement was the Combined DNA Index System, or Codis, maintained by the FBI. Codis contains around 14 million DNA profiles, but there are strict rules about what types of people can be submitted: those of people who have been arrested or convicted of crimes and unidentified remains. but everyone can conduct a DNA test for consumers and upload their genetic profile to genealogy websites, some of which allow police access.
It was only a matter of time before police turned their attention to newborn blood samples, says Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “In this post-golden-state-killer world, law enforcement is now looking around and trying to identify suspects using genetic samples or genetic data outside of official law enforcement repositories,” she says.