HELENA — A bill that would require investigators to obtain a warrant to search consumer DNA databases like 23andMe or Ancestry.com drew criticism from law enforcement representatives who say it would make it harder to solve cold cases during a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday.
House Bill 602, sponsored by Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, passed the House of Representatives on a 97-2 vote in March and is now being considered in the Senate.
The bill drew support from civil rights and liberty-focused groups that said it would bolster Montanans’ privacy protections in the digital age. Patrick Webb spoke in support of the bill on behalf of Libertarian political group Americans for Prosperity.
“Montanans have spoken emphatically time and time again that we cherish the right to privacy,” Webb said. “And that is something we have ingrained in our own Montana constitution.”
The bill cleared the House just before a key deadline that saw hundreds of bills scheduled for votes over a period of two days. Some proponents of the bill said that deadline led to confusion about the bill’s purpose, resulting in an amendment that “gutted” the intent of the bill, according to Webb.
The amendment put on the bill in the House of Representatives states law enforcement must receive a warrant to search a consumer DNA database unless the consumer “waived” their right to privacy with the company who operates the database. Since most consumers do so to some degree by agreeing to a company’s terms of service, Webb argued the bill would no longer protect consumer’s private information against government encroachment.
“Restraints on government need to be a separate discussion than what individual contractual agreements are,” Webb said.
Opponents representing law enforcement advocacy groups said the amendment was a welcome addition, but still opposed the bill for the restrictions it would place on investigations.
Mark Murphy, representing the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police, said the bill would make solving cold cases through DNA evidence harder, as judges would be unlikely to find probable cause to search a DNA database.