DNA and Distrust

58 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2014 Last revised: 21 Jan 2016

Kerry Abrams

University of Virginia School of Law

Brandon L. Garrett

Duke University School of Law

Date Written: January 20, 2016


Over the past three decades, government regulation and funding of DNA testing has reshaped the use of genetic evidence across various fields, including criminal law, family law, and employment law. Courts have struggled with questions of when and whether to treat genetic evidence as implicating individual rights, policy trade-offs, or federalism problems. We identify two modes of genetic testing: identification testing, used to establish a person’s identity, and predictive testing, which seeks to predict outcomes for a person. Judges and lawmakers have often drawn a bright line at predictive testing, while allowing uninhibited identity testing. The U.S. Supreme Court in Maryland v. King, for example, held that entering arrestee DNA in databanks does not implicate substantial Fourth Amendment concerns, since police do not test for genetic predispositions “not relevant to identity.” We argue that policy implications of genetic testing laws cannot be so neatly demarked. For example, federal welfare laws require states to use DNA to establish paternity to collect child support from “deadbeat dads,” which may be relevant to identity, but also creates potentially destabilizing effects on families. We explore how genetic testing has been legally regulated across a variety of fields. We identify two dominant modes of regulatory action dealing with genetics: data-driven and ethics-based. Data-driven legislation is ostensibly focused on short-term benefits of gathering a population’s genetic information. Ethics-based legislation, in contrast, is concerned with long-term consequences, such as effects on privacy. We particularly critique data-driven legislation, and we argue that judges, legislators and scholars should focus squarely on the individual and government interests at stake. We set out a list of five factors that legal actors should consider when considering genetics regulation: (1) equality, (2) accuracy, (3) privacy, (4) finality, and (5) federalism. In particular, equality concerns permeate the short history of DNA regulation. In each of the areas explored, comparatively disadvantaged groups such as arrestees, convicts, juveniles, noncitizens, and welfare recipients, have received the most intrusive regulation and collection of their genetic evidence, while comparatively privileged persons benefit from enhanced genetic privacy. We conclude that the regulation of genetic evidence deserves far more careful legal scrutiny, since the ways that genetic evidence is deployed can profoundly affect constitutional rights and the structure of legal and social institutions.

Suggested Citation

Abrams, Kerry and Garrett, Brandon L., DNA and Distrust (January 20, 2016). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 91, No. 2, 2015; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2014-41. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2473728 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2473728

Kerry Abrams

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434-924-7361 (Phone)

Brandon L. Garrett (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7090 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.brandonlgarrett.com/

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