By Aaron Kesel
For the last 10 months, Houston police have been testing a new mobile DNA machine called rapid DNA that runs tests in under two hours.
HPD launched a pilot program with the company ANDE to test a machine that runs DNA tests in under two hours, local news station KHOU11 reported.
“This rapid DNA is the future. It comes down to when mathematicians stopped using abacuses and started using calculators. It’s that important to criminal justice,” said Lt. Warren Meeler, Houston Police Department, Homicide Division.
As part of the test program, proper protocol for using the technology has been to swab each piece of evidence twice. First, the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) takes an official sample for the lab, then Houston police take a second sample for the trial machine.
Houston police have used rapid DNA analysis in approximately 60 cases so far which range from aggravated assaults to murders according to the report.
Rapid DNA results can’t be used in court and the technology is only used for investigations in Houston according to the news outlet.
However, the technology has some forensic scientists worried about whether it should be used at crime scenes, warning about the accuracy of the technology.
“I think everybody is comfortable that if there is a high concentration of DNA from a single source, so an oral swab from an individual, we’re confident the instruments produce good data. The questions start to come in circumstances where we’ve got touch DNA — smaller quantities of DNA, more mixtures, there’s more people on that doorknob that I’m swabbing – there I’m not sure anybody knows yet,” said Dr. Peter Stout, President and CEO of the Houston Forensic Science Center.
Houston isn’t the only city using rapid DNA, police departments across the country—from Florida to Arizona—have rolled out their own pilot programs to test these miniature portable DNA lab machines.
In December of 2015 results from a rapid DNA device were submitted as evidence in a successful murder prosecution for the first time attempted murder case in Richland County, South Carolina. (That article now has been curiously deleted from Reuters and is only available on archive.org)
A bill before Congress, introduced on December 2015 by Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, called for profiles collected by rapid DNA devices to be connected to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the software and national database that stores DNA profiles from federal, state and local forensic laboratories.
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During a Senate committee hearing on the Rapid DNA Act of 2015, disgraced former FBI Director James Comey said that passage of the bill “would help us change the world in a very, very exciting way. It will allow us, in booking stations around the country, if someone’s arrested, to know instantly—or near instantly—whether that person is the rapist who’s been on the loose in a particular community before they’re released on bail and get away or to clear somebody, to show that they’re not the person.”
The Rapid DNA Act of 2017, S.139 and HR.510 passed last year, amended the DNA Identification Act of 1994, allowing previous hurdles to be surpassed by the new technology.
The bill was sponsored by U.S. Senate sponsor Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and lead co-sponsor Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as well as House sponsor Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and lead co-sponsor Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA), along with 12 Senate and 24 House co-sponsors for their support, Business Wire reported.
“Today marks a landmark day in more efficiently fighting crime and supporting law enforcement,” stated Robert Schueren, President and CEO of IntegenX. “IntegenX products have already enabled numerous DNA profile uploads to our nation’s DNA database (CODIS). We look forward to the updated FBI guidelines, and subsequent CODIS uploads from the booking environment.”
“Rapid DNA is a promising new technology and an effective tool for law enforcement – I’m thrilled to be seeing it signed into law. This technology will help quickly identify arrestees and offenders, reduce the overwhelming backlog in forensic DNA analysis, and make crime fighting more efficient while helping to prevent future crimes from occurring. It will also save time and taxpayer dollars,” commented Congressman Sensenbrenner, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Oversight.
“This bill will help law enforcement agencies solve crimes faster and help those wrongfully accused to be exonerated from crimes they did not commit—almost instantly. The Rapid DNA Act updates the statutory framework in how DNA samples are entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System by allowing the use of this remarkable Rapid DNA technology,” stated Senator Hatch.
Even the DHS is looking into using the technology for immigration purposes to stop adults fleeing with kids and ensure that they are their actual relatives. But later the DHS postponed the technology in 2015 to develop a stricter protocol for its use, Next Gov reported.
“The implementation of the program has been postponed until new voluntary consent forms are developed as well as operational protocols for translation,” Department of Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico told Nextgov in an email.
DHS documents obtained by the EFF state that the military may be interested in using rapid DNA in the future to reveal information about individuals such as their sex, race, health, and age.
In a 2013 privacy impact assessment for rapid DNA pilot testing, the DHS stated that the portion of DNA analyzed by the devices does not reveal any “sensitive information about an individual, and will not, under any circumstances, be used for decisions based on those criteria.”
The EFF disagrees with Comey and the DHS and has previously stated that the test pilot DNA program “may create controversy,” according to internal documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties group. In a high priority e-mail from 2011, a DHS officer wrote to colleagues that “if DHS fails to provide an adequate response to media inquiries regarding RapidDNA quickly, civil rights/civil liberties organizations may attempt to shut down the test program.”