DNA has been responsible for the acquittals of dozens of wrongfully convicted individuals around the country. Police departments are investing more time and money into technology that will quickly process and catalog DNA in their efforts to improve the justice system.
One department – Bensalem, outside of Philadelphia – installed a Rapid DNA machine back in 2017, setting the tone for future law enforcement. Traditionally, if police were trying to determine if a suspect’s DNA matched DNA previously found at a crime scene, the samples were sent to an external lab. It would often take a month or more for the results to come back.
But with a Rapid DNA machine, the results come as quick as 90 minutes. Other police departments have joined in, including Houston and Utah. After President Trump signed the Rapid DNA Act, multiple departments across the country are able to connect their machines to the national DNA database, putting it on the same level as the international fingerprinting database.
Already, the use of the machines has made a tangible difference, according to police departments in multiple states. In Orange County, California, the D.A.’s office reported to the New York Times that the machine worked so fast that some robbery suspects were identified while they were still holding stolen items. The machine also helped to identify some of the victims of the massive wildfires across Northern California.
While this is exciting, and certainly promising if it helps reduce wrongful convictions, some experts are skeptical of its use. While police officers are collecting DNA from guilty people, they are also collecting it from people deemed suspicious, whose DNA goes onto the database permanently, linking their identities to state governments across the country.
Running someone’s DNA just to see if there’s a hit elsewhere is tempting, but essentially undercuts the constitutional protections guaranteed to citizens under the law. There’s also some basic concern that sensitive genetic material, being handled by non-experts, could end up being misinterpreted or wrongly input into the system.
After all, DNA labs will have rigorous protocols for individuals who are typically forensic scientists, with appropriate education and training to handle and test DNA material. In contrast, Rapid DNA machines have no such protocols. People tasked with working the machine are able to do so after a few hours of training by Thermo Fisher Scientific. And, there are currently no actual rules or guidelines on how to use (or how one should use) the machine.
In Bensalem, individuals who are arrested are asked if they will consent to provide a DNA sample for the database. Apparently, around ninety percent of individuals arrested will provide one – a word of warning to criminal defense attorneys in jurisdictions with this technology.
Overall, the machines are accurate, provided they are giving a good, cheek swab sample. Once law enforcement begins using the machines to analyze crime scene data like blood or cigarette butts, the potential for misuse and misidentification begins to grow. This is especially true if some of the crime scene evidence holds multiple people’s DNA samples.
While the technology is exciting, it cries out for some regulation and standardization. No doubt litigation will help clarify some of the constitutional questions raised by unfettered use of the machine by departments. Regardless, the introduction of such technology into regular policing is likely to prove to be an exciting element to watch for practitioners of law.