Rapid DNA machines speed up police investigations but lack of protocols causes concern

Rapid DNA machines are being used by a growing number of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to rapidly test suspect DNA for a match against DNA previously collected from a crime scene, The New York Times reports.

The machines provide results to DNA tests in 90 minutes, a vast improvement over the months police otherwise often have to wait to get results back from external laboratories. A booking station in Bensalem, Pennsylvania installed a Rapid DNA machine in early 2017, the first in the country to do so, according to the Times. Forces in Houston, Utah, and Delaware have since done the same.

The Rapid DNA Act, which was signed into law in 2017, authorizes police to connect their Rapid DNA machines to the DNA records in the CODIS national database. The FBI, meanwhile, is currently setting up infrastructure for police in Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas to upload data directly to the national DNA database.

Law enforcement officials told the Times that the technology has been used to provide leads in hundreds of cases, facilitate arrests, and clear individuals who had been falsely accused. In a robbery case in Orange County, California, the suspects were identified so quickly they still had possession of the stolen goods, and Rapid DNA machines were used to identify victims of the state’s recent wildfires.

New York University Law Professor Erin Murphy, who wrote a book called “Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA,” is concerned about data being collected for DNA databases from people who are not suspects in major crimes. The Times article includes a photograph of a sign in the Bensalem facility reminding officers to “ask for DNA.” A representative of the Bensalem Police Department told the Times that roughly 90 percent of those asked submit a DNA sample.

“It’s a lot harder to resist the temptation just to run some people’s DNA, just to see if there’s anything useful that you get out of it,” Murphy warns, and adds that such a practice would challenge the constitutional protection of liberty.

The protocols for handling DNA samples at labs do not apply to the Rapid DNA machines, and the main operator of the Bensalem machine, Detective Glenn Vandegrift is qualified by receiving several hours of training from supplier IntegenX, which was acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2018.

“There really are no actual rules written anywhere,” Detective Vandegrift says. He is consulting with a lab to formulate ones for the department.

In the absence of protocols and rules, several agencies have used the machines to test latent DNA samples, which they are not designed for, and according to scientists, not necessarily capable of. The National District Attorneys Association stated early last year that it “does not support the use of Rapid DNA technology for crime-scene DNA samples unless the samples are analyzed by experienced DNA analysts.” The Times notes that the machines are used primarily for lead generation, and rarely used in court.

U.S. law enforcement agencies are currently researching how to extend the matching value of DNA samples through family members.

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