Fourth Amendment

How Detectives Caught the Golden State Killer—and Unleashed a Catastrophe for Civil Liberties

Police were finally able to catch the serial killer using DNA genealogy databases—violating many innocent people's constitutional right to privacy.


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In 1980, Lyman and Charlene Smith were found bound and bludgeoned to death in their Ventura County home. Charlene had also been raped, and investigators managed to retrieve semen from the crime scene. It would take 38 years to find the killer.

"It was a sensational, godawful murder in a small town," recalls Jennifer Carole, Lyman Smith's daughter. The way they had been murdered "had a lot of feeling and emotion behind it," she recalls. "There was a lot of reason why you would think that someone they knew did this."

Carole would eventually learn that her father and stepmother had been victims of a notorious serial rapist and killer who had 87 individual victims at 53 separate crime scenes from 1975 to 1986.

Known as the Golden State Killer, the assailant avoided detection for decades. 

In 2018, police finally identified and arrested the killer, a retired police officer and truck mechanic named Joseph James DeAngelo. They solved the case thanks to the advent of online genealogy databases, in which individuals voluntarily share their DNA online to obtain information about their personal health and heritage and to connect with family members. 

These databases were what allowed investigators to bring DeAngelo to justice, and they went on to be used to name suspects in dozens of other cold cases across the United States, ushering in a new technological leap that the law is still catching up with.

The Golden State Killer story was told in magazines, books, podcasts, an HBO series.

But the capture of the Golden State Killer also has troubling implications for civil liberties. The use of genealogical databases for crime fighting makes it possible for the government to search through personal information of innocent citizens—their genetic code—in ways that violate privacy norms enshrined in the Constitution.

Police had DNA from the Smith crime scene genotyped in the same way customers would, using a single nucleotide polymorphism test. They compared the raw data with that of other people who had uploaded their data to genealogy websites, including YSearch, MyHeritageDNA, FamilyTree DNA, and GEDMatch. Connections between family members revealed a family tree that would lead to DeAngelo.

"The idea is not that the police are supposed to indiscriminately rummage through the lives of citizens looking for crime," says Erin E. Murphy, a law professor at New York University and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. "They're supposed to have probable cause, targeted suspicion to believe somebody involved in criminal activity and then from that suspicion perhaps develop reason for arrest or prosecution."

According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators believed their genealogy searching was legal. "We were entirely confident that it would pass legal muster," former Golden State Killer investigator Paul Holes told the Times. "But we understood that there could be a fallout in terms of public perception."

"Rifling through the lives of thousands of innocent people, people you know are not the perpetrator of the crime, is a pretty serious thing to encourage law enforcement to do," says Murphy.

Shot, written, produced, edited, and motion graphics by Paul Detrick; additional camera by Zach Weissmuller.

Music credits: Kiss of Death by Kadir Demir; Hope and Heisenberg by Spearfisher; Psycho Bill by Jordan Hatfield; Speed Freak by Evgeny Bardyuzha; Null by Neshza

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NEXT: Great Moments in Unintended Consequences (Vol. 3)

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  1. It’s cute that you think the constitution matters

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  2. The lesson….Do not ever share your DNA profile with a third-party. That third-party will just turn it over to the FBI without a warrant. You know, that FBI that is a paragon of constitutional behavior (/extreme sarcasm).

    1. …and hope none of your close relatives do either.

      As a non-rapist, I’m am more concerned about facial recognition being used against average citizens.

    2. The problem isn’t sharing your DNA with a third party, the problem is your dumbass relatives sharing their DNA with a third party because why wouldn’t you trust them to keep your information securely private? Just like sharing all your private information with Google, Facebook and Nigerian princes, what could possibly be the harm in that? It’s not like they’re going to scrape your e-mails and contacts lists and browser history and build up profiles on everybody you know whether or not they consented to have their private information gathered up.

      1. You think that abuse of DNA databases is bad NOW!?! Just you wait till the Trump Royalists scream and holler about imagined massive voter fraud for another few years! Before you can vote, to prove that you are who you say you are, you’ll have to provide DNA to the on-site R-party rep, the D-Party rep, maybe even the L-Party (Green Party, Commie Party, etc.) reps, PLUS the Controlling Local Voting Authority, and THEN you will FINALLY be allowed to vote! And ALL of the “parties to your DNA info” will solemnly pinky-swear to “protect your data”, of course! No, no worries!

        1. [Cursor hovers over mute button]

          1. Just click it. Threads will make so much more sense.

            1. And then you can double down on your authoritarian beliefs, w/o being disturbed! You need NOT trouble your Pretty Little Head about the Trumpist-Emperor-wannabe having no clothes, as we continue our march towards the 1-party “R” state!

              Trump’s Big Lie and Hitler’s: Is this how America’s slide into totalitarianism begins?

              Totalitarians want to turn GOP into GOD (Grand Old Dicktatorshit).

              1. My DNA should be my private property.

          2. ‘Hovers’?

      2. Is there any evidence that any of them who were still alive even cared? If this is a crime, it would seem to be a victimless one unless one or more of them objected.

    3. I don’t mind my DNA being shared with the FBI, why would I? There is no ambiguity there: either it matches or it doesn’t.

      Financial records and social network data are a different thing: given enough data, motivated prosecutors can fabricate accusations and crimes that seem plausible enough to destroy someone’s life even if there is no actual crime.

  3. The use of genealogical databases for crime fighting makes it possible for the government to search through personal information of innocent citizens—their genetic code—in ways that violate privacy norms enshrined in the Constitution.

    “And don’t even get me started about the use of *financial* databases!”

  4. I found out after the fact that my 10 year old grandson had his DNA tested. He thought it would be cool after seeing ads on TV. I hate that there is now familial DNA out there. Not that I have anything to hide now but you never know about the future.

    1. This isn’t that big a deal. Didn’t we all already know we have to police our DNA when committing violent crime?

      1. The Boy Scouts call it “leave no trace”

        1. See? Society has completely internalized this already. If only we could teach math as well as we teach getting away with crime we could claim we’ve reached the end of history.

  5. “Rifling through the lives of thousands of innocent people, people you know are not the perpetrator of the crime, is a pretty serious thing to encourage law enforcement to do”

    Don’t they already do this with the finger print data bases the police maintain? Granted the finger prints were obtained through coercion while the DNA info was voluntarily uploaded, but either way it’s a fishing expedition rather than the “targeted suspicion to believe somebody involved in criminal activity and then from that suspicion perhaps develop reason for arrest or prosecution” as it’s supposed to work.

    1. Fingerprinting is like traditional DNA database matching, where in theory the sample matches a single suspect, and has to be obtained from that suspect. The samples are also obtained within a legal context.

      That’s different than genealogical matching, where the sample is submitted by a third party and is submitted for a completely different purpose.

      Those differences may not be dispositive for you or even the courts, but will be for others.

  6. As with social media the people gave over their information willingly. That you now regret doing it is on you.

    1. I don’t think anybody even regrets this; why would they?

      This is an even weaker fringe issue than the usual fringe issues Reason and libertarians concern themselves with.

  7. Private companies.
    Voluntary submission.
    Not ‘Rifling through the lives of thousands of innocent people’, but only seeing the actual match results.
    Funny how those who whine about this also wear two masks outdoors when alone.
    Vote for fascists, get fascism.

  8. The use of genealogical databases for crime fighting makes it possible for the government to search through personal information of innocent citizens…

    I really don’t see a problem with this. It’s a tool to help find the criminal. Because your genetics information is unique, this will hopefully lead to fewer false arrests and convictions of innocent people.

    I sent my DNA to 23andMe a few years ago. Law Enforcement agencies may have looked at it a million times since then. These searches have affected me a grand total of zero times and I lost zero minutes of sleep over this.

    There are plenty of things that need to be reformed in our police departments (asset forfeiture?) before we take away a tool that helps the police find the criminals, reduces mistakes, and has zero measurable affect on the relatives of those criminals.

  9. This is a good example of why courts exist to adjudicate things.

    I totally understand why investigators would want to do this. I had a relative who worked to close cold cases. There’s a lot of them and the only reason they can still spin the plates as witnesses die and family moves is because someday somehow someway we’ll be able to figure out how to get this guy.

    Generic civil liberties are an abstraction. When/if someone is harmed because of some shortcut or violation – then we got ourselves a court case.

    1. “This is a good example of why courts exist to adjudicate things.” No, this is a good example of law professors finding an outrage niche, and the scientifically illiterate among us becoming correspondingly agitated. Interesting that no one has been able to point out a single piece of private information that became known to the government unreasonably. The repetition of three nucleotide sequences in a person’s overall DNA sequence isn’t information of the sort that implicates any sort of heightened privacy interest.

      1. How about you just mind your own damn business and stay out of mine, unless you can show damn good cause to investigate me.

  10. the second your dna (phone call … bank transaction …) isn’t yours anymore there are no privacy violations. don’t give it away voluntarily.

  11. This may be the single stupidest piece ever published here.

    The hunt for the GSK was ” a search for a crime”?

    If you voluntarily give over your DNA, you have no expectation of privacy. The FBI looking at a database is no more “invasive” than looking at phone or bank records, or your trash you put on the curb. Actually much less invasive.

    1. To be fair, I would have an expectation of privacy if my contract with the company says so. Likewise, I actually do have an expectation that the FBI doesn’t look through my phone or bank records unless they have probable cause.

      But when it comes to genealogy web sites, people give over their DNA precisely so that it can be used to establish family relationships by anyone. Maybe that’s not a good choice, but it’s a choice that people make freely.

  12. So now it’s
    #LibertariansForSerialKillers vs. #TotalitariansForKnowingYourRoots?

    Surely there has to be a happier medium.

    1. The press says basement bunker Biden is a moderate.
      Is that a happy medium?
      Or are we talking about a fortune teller who smokes weed?

      1. The fortune teller who smokes weed is much more aware than Sleepy, Creepy, Crazy, Cranky, Tankie, Corn-Pop, Lunch-Bucket, Shotgun, Basement Bunker Joe…and the fortunes are still woo, whether given straight or stoned.

  13. “privacy norms”? Or do you mean our inalienable individual rights? Because “privacy norms” can change. And f anyone who thinks we don’t have inalienable individual rights that cannot be infringed.

  14. “Unleashed a catastrophe for civil liberties?” If I were to make a list of civil liberties concerns, this would be way down near the bottom. One reason sexual exploitation of minors is so prevalent is that families try so hard to keep crimes of this nature private. Please REASON, when you use this sort of language, it indicates a declining level of journalistic standards.

  15. That Genie is out of the bottle. Even if you don’t have a DNA test done someone related to you probably has. I question how much rummaging through innocent peoples’ lives has happened, or at least, what was the nature of the rummaging. Was it identifying a distant relative and then putting together a family tree and never speaking with anyone in the about it? Did they talk to these relatives and ask for cooperation? Was it voluntarily given or was someone put under the hot lights and asked about their great grandparents and whether they knew a distant cousin? If a distant relative of mine was some sort of criminal do I really want them to get away with it?

  16. Thank you Reason. At least someone if fighting for my rights to rape, bind and murder random women.

    1. Reason and libertarians keep finding the most idiotic hills to die on.

  17. All I can say is thank God we finally have a way of finding these killers who go decades without being caught and who rape and murder over and over again. The world is going to get very small for these people and those that thought they committed the perfect crime are going to have a rude awakening. As DNA testing gets better and better we are also going to free lots of people who are exonerated by DNA evidence pointing to a different person. There will be fewer people incarcerated and much more certainty that those who are are there for a good reason.

    Yes, I understand the civil liberties issue and I look forward to the courts adjudicating the finer points with, I hope, strong judgment.

  18. It was not as easy as this article portrays. First, evidence was gathered at crime scenes. Second, while the DNA profile was submitted to various PUBLIC databases, no ones’ lives were disrupted. And a familia match was again, just the start. Again, PUBLIC records were searched to construct a family tree. This tree was then used to generate potential suspects, and then additional public records were searched to narrow the list of potential suspects. Then conventional methods were used to get DNA or further narrow the list.

    1. Are you the John so famous from a year or more ago on Hit and Run? Either way, Greetings!

      I would have no objection to using known genetic data and databases to help track down and bring to justice dangerous, violent criminals. They are threats to Life, Liberty, and Property too.

      I would also have no objection to using this data and databases for aquitting and pardoning the falsely accused, indicted, and convicted. Indeed, access to the data and databases by people fighting false accusations, indictments, and convictions should be mandatory, along with any legal evidence that can absolve the innocent.

      My concerns is that genetic data should be considered only one part of a whole palette of data used to convict a person beyond a reasonable doubt.

      No one should be convicted on genetic data alone, especially if it becomes possible to chemically replicate DNA patterns via CRISPR or other means and place them at a crime scene to frame someone. Also, obtaining genetic data evidence should be covered by “The Exclusionary Rule” as long as we have one. If it’s illegally obtained, either prosecute the officer or exclude the evidence or both.

      Also, law enforcers who use this tool need to be vetted and watched well. The last thing we need are law enforcers with Hatfield-vs.-McCoy grudges, grievances from “The Old Country,” or Race Supermacist/Critical Race Theory brainwashing who know who is kin to whom and where they live.

      Also, if genetic data is gathered for medical purposes, it should be used strictly according to Physician/Patient confidentiality rules/HIPPA, etc.

      I have no problem with genetic technology per se, but it’s only to be used in ways that serve and not destroy Life, Liberty, and Property.

  19. I’m confused what Reason is trying to argue here. People are voluntarily sharing their DNA on web sites so that others can search them and find relatives.

    If I had a serial killer in my family, why would I not want them to be identified this way?

    What exactly is the concern here?

  20. Okay, guys, pick your argument:

    1) A person’s genetic data belongs to him, and therefore, that person has the right to make it public if he so chooses, whether or not anyone else likes it.

    2) A person’s genetic data does not belong to him, and therefore that person has no grounds for objecting to what is done with it by anyone else.

    When you’ve decided which holds, join me for a mocking of idiots who call this a catastrophe for civil liberties.

    1. It’s all virtue signaling with Reason writers

    2. Actually, this case is neither. The person who was either subjected to an unreasonable search or was not unreasonably searched had no genetic information in the public database. None of his information was searched.

      People who voluntarily shared their genetic information were checked for matches.

      This is a strange area of privacy law.

      1. Well, in your view, none of his information was searched, therefore he was not unreasonably searched.

        Some people are seemingly inventing an argument where he had a proprietary interest in other people’s DNA, because theirs is similar to his (by virtue of being a relative). But even if he does, they still have a proprietary interest in their own DNA (and, by analogy, to his DNA because he’s their relative, too), and can consent to the search of their information

        By analogy with a residence with multiple resident co-owners, if one co-owner of a house lets the police enter the common kitchen, and from there the police hear you murder someone in your room, the fact that you were a co-owner of the kitchen doesn’t make the police presence an unreasonable search. Yes, the kitchen you co-own is private property, but access was authorized by someone with the right to grant authorization.

        There’s no way to get to a situation where the Golden State Killer has a proprietary interest in the DNA that was submitted but the people who submitted their own DNA did not, which is where you have to get to in order to make it a violation.

  21. I wonder if anyone has done a study on a correlation or causation between the prevalence of serial killers and the prevalence and strictness of gun laws, self-defense laws, and “victimless crime” laws within the same and differing jurisdictions. It seems logically like there would be one, but I wonder what the data shows?

    A murderer who massacred 87 victims spread over 53 crime scenes and within 11 years time had to have done so in a place with little or no risk of armed resistance or the trail of death would have ended damn quick.

    Also, serial murderers of prostitutes, LGBTQ+, or drug users and dealers would no doubt know of their victims’ legal status and of the victims’ reluctance to step forward and seek legal protection and justice. Otherwise, why would these groups be such easy targets?

    Perhaps if self-defense, bearing arms, and “victimless crimes” were all completely legal, serial murderers would have much fewer victims to hunt and thus less need for a chromosome man-hunt.

  22. Better to let a serial rapist and murderer go free than hurt someone’s feelings.

  23. This is most definitely not police rummaging through people’s private lives. That is just simply not an accurate characterization. Nor is it random shotgun approach to finding a crime to convict someone of.

    This is more akin to using evidence about the person who committed a crime to figure out where to look for a suspect.

    Example: witnesses saw a white male. He was wearing coveralls with oil stains and the logo of an oil company. He was wearing a UCLA baseball cap even though this crime was committed in St Louis.

    Would it be invading people’s privacy for police to look at the employee records of the oil company and cross check for UCLA alumni, people from Los Angeles or Southern California, and check out UCLA watch parties at local bars for employees of the oil company matching his description?

    That is essentially what they did here, except for the information was all found in a company’s geneology database… They identified a familial group and looked there for a suspect.

    It is different and it is weird and new. But it is essentially the same as checking the employee records if a criminal is somehow associated with a company. In our example above that takes the suspect pool from a 100,000 down to maybe 500. Then the fact that he is a white guy takes that down to 300. Walking the plant floor, police notice that there is one guy who has a UCLA sticker on his lunch box. Now they have a single suspect. That is what we would have called good old-fashioned police work.

    In the DNA case they went from millions of suspects down to a handful. From there they still needed to build enough of a case to get DNA testing.

    I don’t know where this one shakes out. It is a little creepy that you can be identified from your DNA even if you have never provided any DNA samples to anyone. That part does feel a little bit like Gattaca.

    But this is an edge case for now. Most people will never run up against a situation where DNA gets involved in anything. But the fingerprints and breadcrumb trails we leave are much more pervasive than DNA these days. Your cell phone essentially provides 24 hours a day 7 days a week tracking of your location to multiple companies. Even if you don’t use a smartphone, your cell phone provider has pretty good information about where you are at all times. Plate reading cameras can track your car as you move around the streets. Facial recognition software and databases can place you at various stores and events. If you live in the city, chances are that the data already exists to keep track of you 24 hours a day 7 days a week no matter where you go or what you do.

    That data is not completely consolidated yet, but we are not terribly far away from that moment. Facebook, and Google probably already know more about you than you know about yourself. Toss in big retailers like Amazon and credit card companies and banks and your life is essentially an open book.

    The big brother moment is already here, I think. And surprisingly, we have voluntarily created him. His knowledge of you is more pervasive than we imagine. I would bet that were they so inclined the big tech companies could identify whether or not you were having an affair and who you are having the affair with, all having never seen you in person.

    Since those companies are so heavily involved in politics these days, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that if we have not already seen it, we will see someone’s private embarrassment brought to the public via this data mining during the next election cycle. In all likelihood these methods will not be revealed as a part of the takedown, so maybe the reckoning over this will not come for a while.

  24. The police might only have a partial DNA profile of the suspect, so many people would match, maybe even many people in the databases, and they wouldn’t know which of them was the perpetrator – maybe none of them. And they could then suspect several of the matches and subject them to an intense interrogation and investigation, word of which would spread, and those people could then be thought guilty by the public. So the lives of several innocent people could be made a living hell. And innocent people have been convicted, probably even executed.

    Even if they have a full profile, and that person’s DNA wasn’t in the database (as seems quite likely), anyone whose DNA was similar to that profile could be a family member, and could have been an accomplice, or could know the perpetrator and know something about the crime. So again the police could treat them as a suspect with the unpleasant consequences listed above.

    Or that person’s DNA might have been innocently left at the crime scene, and they might know nothing about the crime at all. And the police wouldn’t have got their DNA had it not been for the genealogical database.

    It’s great when this method correctly identifies a perpetrator, but there are dangers.

  25. Great article! I am all for throwing the serial killer in prison, but realize that by doing so we are opening the door to a bunch of problems and violations for our personal liberty. I realized that when this case was settled a few years back. I said, damn I already did one of those DNA tests. Hope I don’t have any serial killer relatives. But if I do, fuck em!
    Where do the needs of order > needs of liberty?
    If you say never, I think you are nuts. I don’t mind them doing this for serial killers, but for anything less, I would have a problem. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite but I don’t care.

  26. I think one interesting thing not mentioned is that Joseph James DeAngelo was a cop while committing these crimes. And I have my suspicions that other cops on the force knew about his bad behavior, but because of the way the Police unions protect all their members, he was shielded. Sad.

    1. Very astute observation! All the more reason to be very damn carful with who can access this new technology.

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