DNA Databases Lead to Arrests and Raise Lots of Questions

  • Oct 22 2019

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department claims they have arrested a serial killer. Robert Hayes has been arrested and charged with the murder of three women. He wasn’t found at the scene of the crime, knife in hand. Nor was he caught boasting about years-old crimes. Instead, he was entrapped by modern technology. 

DNA evidence collected at the scenes of three different murders that occurred over a period of 10 years matched one another. From it, the police put together a DNA profile, but it did not match any samples in any of the various law enforcement DNA databases. 

However, law enforcement is not the only entity out there with a massive DNA database. Private companies that specialize in genetic testing and genealogy have amassed massive troves of DNA data. That is how Hayes was identified as a suspect. 

Robert Hayes: Found by a Genetic Database

The DNA gathered at the scenes of the three murders police suspected were committed by the same person was run through a genetic database used by people trying to find long-lost relatives, and some sort of link to Hayes was established.

According to the Miami Herald, “Investigators put Hayes under surveillance and said a cigarette butt collected surreptitiously last week after he caught a bus-linked him to the killings and a sample taken after his arrest confirmed it. They said the odds are 700-billion-to-1 that the killer is someone other than Hayes. That is 100 times the world’s population.” 

The interesting thing about Hayes’s arrest is that he was probably not the only member of his family whose DNA was secretly collected by police so that it could be tested. It is unclear how closely Hayes was even related to the person who voluntarily gave their DNA to the massive commercial database police tapped into. There could have been hundreds of Hayes’s relatives under investigation. 

This is not a comforting thought. Even if you have done nothing wrong, do you really want the government tracking you and your family’s every move, waiting for you to drop a cigarette, spit out a piece of gum, or otherwise leave a tiny bit of themselves behind for the cops to collect? 

What happens to the DNA samples collected in situations like this? Hayes’ will go into the state’s DNA database since he was arrested for a felony. But it is unclear what will happen to the DNA of any other people Florida law enforcement were investigating. 

Under Florida Statute 943.325, a person arrested for any of the following felony offenses must provide a DNA sample to law enforcement officials: 

  • Assault and Battery: Aggravated Assault, Felony Battery, Aggravated Battery, etc.
  • Burglary and Trespass
  • Homicide: First Degree Murder, Second Degree Murder, Manslaughter, etc.
  • Lewd or Lascivious Acts
  • Sexual Battery: Rape, Statutory Rape, etc.
  • Theft and Robbery

State law is silent with regards to what other DNA data is stored in its database. It does, however, provide a mechanism for some people who were forced to give up their DNA to the state to take that data back. 

Under state law, anyone who was forced to give up their DNA under the statute above, but is later found not guilty, has their case dismissed, or whose conviction is reversed on appeal, may petition the state to have their DNA data removed from the state’s database. 

These petitions are something we at Valiente, Carollo and McElligott PLLC help our clients do. We appreciate the importance of protecting your privacy. This is especially true as technology advances and the government and big corporations try to learn as much as they can about our personal lives. It is your right to draw a line and protect yourself from unwanted scrutiny. If you previously surrendered a DNA sample to law enforcement officials, and you would like to take that data out of the state’s system, please contact our office.

Posted in: Criminal