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DNA search in murder case challenged before Iowa Supreme Court

The story of a case that’s before the Iowa Supreme Court begins in 1979 when police could not solve a murder case. Even years later, when modern technology enabled DNA to be extracted from blood left at the crime scene and then compared to DNA in government-run DNA databases, police had no leads.

Making news

In 2018, law enforcement contracted with Parabon Nanolabs, a company that was generating headlines with its DNA phenotyping technology that enabled it to predict for many police departments the physical appearances of people whose DNA had been collected at crime scenes.

A crucial step in the process: Parabon Nanolabs uploaded DNA profiles to GEDMatch, a free consumer genetic genealogy database people use to try to track down lost relatives.

In the Iowa case, the crime scene DNA was linked through GEDMatch to Jerry Burns. Police then surveilled Burns until they were able to collect something containing his DNA – which they did when they retrieved a straw that Burns had used and discarded at a restaurant.

The DNA on the straw was matched to the DNA at the crime scene and Burns was arrested and later convicted.

The arguments

In State v. Burns before the Iowa Supreme Court, the state argues that Burns’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights were abandoned when he discarded the straw. In an amicus brief, the ACLU, the ACLU of Iowa and the Electronic Frontier Foundation acknowledge that in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect trash people leave to be picked up. The court said that when a person throws stuff away, they “abandon” an expectation of privacy.

The organizations argue that because DNA contains “intensely sensitive information“ about a person, “police should need a warrant” before they search for and collect DNA on discarded items.

Genetic code deposited everywhere

They point out that humans “cannot avoid leaving behind the whole of our genetic code wherever we go.” The organizations argue that “the only way to avoid depositing our DNA on nearly every item we touch out in the world would be to never leave one’s home.”

They note that though Burns abandoned the straw, “in no meaningful sense did he knowingly or voluntarily abandon the copy of his genetic code unavoidably deposited on that straw.”

The ruling in State v. Burns could have a significant impact on a wide variety of violent offenses charges.