Sunday, January 4, 2015

Buza Reloaded: California Balancing

This is the fourth installment on Buza II, the opinion of the California court of appeal that invalidates the state's DNA-on-arrest law. It discusses the part of the opinion that argues that the balance the U.S. Supreme Court struck in Maryland v. King is either flatly wrong or wrong for California. In giving substantial weight to concerns over "familial searching" and the information content of DNA samples, the opinion assumes that it is appropriate to strike down a law that is constitutionally reasonable as currently implemented because future developments might make it unreasonable as then implemented. This premise is highly contestable.

Formally, the conclusion that California's DNA-BC (Before Conviction) law is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment as it appears in the California Constitution does not imply that it is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment as it exists in the U.S. Constitution. California is a sovereign state of the Union, and its courts can read different meanings into the words of its constitution. But many of the reasons the Buza II opinion gives for its conclusion—if correct—also apply to nearly all of the 25 or so DNA-BC laws on the books, and the opinion itself indicates that, in large part, the divergence between Buza II and King emanates from the California judges’ outright disagreement with the Supreme Court's balancing in King.

To begin with, the California judges complain that King “unjustifiably dismissed concerns about the extent of the personal information contained in DNA samples by limiting ... attention to the profile used in DNA databanks, as currently restricted by statutes and scientific capability.” One might expect that this observation immediately would be followed by the undeniable fact that the entirety of a person’s genome contains some medically significant information that would not otherwise be known, such as predispositions to certain diseases. Testing for these alleles (or for markers for them) would pose significant privacy issues (which is why such testing generally is prohibited without the individual’s consent).

But the opinion veers off into a superficial discussion about the CODIS profile itself. The problem, according to Buza II, is that the profile can be used not merely to identify an individual whose DNA is taken when he is arrested, but also sometimes can be used to identify a first-degree relative as a likely source (when the arrestee’s DNA is a close mismatch to the crime-scene sample). This “familial searching,” as the court calls it, is a “factor not relevant to identity,” and therefore “present[s] additional privacy concerns.”

The second part of this statement is true enough. Like a perfect match, a close mismatch is relevant to the identity of the DNA source, but it also reveals that the arrestee could be genetically related to the source of the crime-scene DNA. 1/ Consider the “Grim Sleeper” case of serial rapes and murders in the Los Angeles area, with years of apparent inactivity between some of the attacks. Trawls of the database proved fruitless—until Christopher Franklin was convicted of a felony. His DNA profile did not match the Grim Sleeper’s, but it lined up with it in a manner that would be expected if the two were father and son. This led investigators to Christopher’s father, Lonnie Franklin, Jr. In this way, Lonnie emerged as a suspect only because of his son’s conviction. (His DNA profile was not in the database because his arrests had occurred before California had a database.) Now he stands accused of ten murders.

People v. Franklin reveals an important fact about kinship trawling. In Franklin, it is difficult to discern the slightest “additional privacy concerns.” That Lonnie was Christopher’s father was a publicly known fact, not a private secret. Furthermore, Lonnie can hardly claim to have a legitimate Fourth Amendment interest in keeping secret the fact that it was his DNA that was found on or around murdered women. 

Of course, there could be other cases in which the familial relationship between the database inhabitant and the culprit was not known to one or both of the genetically related individuals. In such situations, the claim to a right to keep the genetic relationship secret is more plausible. But the existence of possible cases of this kind does not demonstrate that the occasional legitimate privacy interests that might be affected by the rare, "other-directed" trawls (that look for people outside of the database) outweigh those of the government.

In particular, for Mark Buza and his relatives to have an additional privacy interest compromised by the arresteee database, at least two conditions would have to be fulfilled. First, California would have to initiate other-directed trawls of its arrestee database. It has never done so, and it cannot do so under the policy its Department of Justice has adopted for such database trawling. This policy confines the other-directed trawling to convicted-offender databases. Second, Mark Buza would have to have publicly unknown first-degree relatives whose DNA profile would be close enough to Mark’s to implicate them in other crimes via a kinship match to Mark’s profile.

On its face, the first condition suggests that the parts of the opinion discussing “familial searching” are inapposite. Why strike down a law because of what could be but is not? Nonetheless, the Buza court’s sensitivity to the possibility of a change in the state’s DNA-BC practice might be seen as prescient rather than premature. From the outset, an argument against DNA databases has been mission creep. Once the database is established, the state will be tempted to use it for additional and more insidious purposes. To guard against this outcome, the argument goes, society should bind itself to the mast in anticipation of an irresistible siren song.

There are situations in which this self-disabling strategy is advisable. Indeed, much of the Bill of Rights constrains the majority from doing what seems expedient or appealing in the heat of the political moment. But it is not so clear that a handful of judges should block the democratic decision to allow DNA-BC to be used in acceptable ways that advance law enforcement on the ground that the system might be administered in unacceptable ways at some future time. If and when a jurisdiction combines other-directed trawling and DNA-BC, courts can consider whether that type of trawling is so serious an invasion of privacy as to render it unconstitutional. Cf. United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983) ("if such dragnet type law enforcement practices as respondent envisions should eventually occur, there will be time enough then to determine whether different constitutional principles may be applicable."). Using the mere possibility of a correctable change in the allowed uses of the DNA data to strike down the collection and otherwise acceptable uses of the data seems Draconian.

Moreover, relying on future familial searching as a ground for striking down the system as currently implemented is inconsistent with Buza II’s effort to distinguish the Maryland practice. Presiding Justice Kline emphasized the existence of a Maryland statute banning familial searching. But as Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Judicial Circuit tartly observed in oral argument in Haskell v. Harris (a separate case challenging California DNA-BC law), statutes can be changed too. The logic of Buza II—that databases that are constitutionally reasonable (as currently implemented) but might become unreasonable (as implemented in the future) are constitutionally unreasonable ab initio—would render the Maryland law on DNA-BC unconstitutional.

Despite these problems, Buza II applies the nip-it-in-the-bud reasoning not only to DNA profiles but also to samples. Displaying little knowledge of behavioral genetics, the court invokes “the pedophile gene” and “the violence gene” that, it imagines, might well be discovered some day. It predicts that “surely law enforcement will seek to mine genetic information for that ‘identification purpose.’” 
But there is no good reason to believe that the word “identification” as used in DNA-BC laws would permit predictive genetic testing for these behaviors, and the court makes no attempt to explain why such testing could not be condemned as constitutionally unreasonable if and when the time arises.

My criticism of the court of appeal's reliance on dystopic visions of the future is not based on naive faith in the goodness of police and law enforcement laboratories. Courts need not—and should not—trust law enforcement to exercise perfect self-restraint in investigative methods that easily can be abused. Before approving a DNA database system, they should satisfy themselves that sufficient safeguards against predictable abuses are in place. But if such protections are present, courts should not invalidate a system because the safeguards might be removed or might cease to be effective in the future. In this case, might does not make the decision right.

  1. Confusingly, the court presents this fact as if it "disproves the King majority’s assumption that 'the CODIS loci come from noncoding parts of the DNA that do not reveal the genetic traits of the arrestee.'" Some noncoding DNA does affect visible traits of an arrestee, but the CODIS loci, as far as current science can tell, do not reveal much about any phenotypes. Because all DNA sequences are inherited, however, including those that King (also confusingly) calls "junk," the ones that vary across individuals, can be used in kinship analysis. In fact, the sequences that do give rise to individual traits often are the best for this purpose because they tend to be extremely variable within populations.
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