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‘Lab in a Box’ Provides DNA Results in Minutes

by Jordan Arizmendi

The method that law-enforcement agencies use to test a suspect’s DNA is currently undergoing the most significant transformation in the science’s history. New Rapid DNA technology can develop an individual’s DNA profile in one to two hours. The machine can test skin, hair, DNA swabs, blood, saliva, cigarette butts, and anything that potentially contains DNA.

According to the FBI website, coupled with Combined DNA Index System (“CODIS”), a DNA profile can be searched against all unsolved crimes within 24 hours. By using Rapid DNA with DNA Index of Special Concern (“DISC”), a DNA profile can be searched against all unsolved homicides, sexual assaults, kidnappings, and terrorism events. Plus, a match to a DISC profile will notify the booking department, arresting department, and investigating department all instantaneously. Rapid DNA technology can find the results while the arrestee is still in custody.

The Rapid DNA Act of 2017 allows the machines to connect to CODIS. The first Rapid DNA machine was installed at the East Baton Rouge Paris jail in August 2022. In 2020, the FBI started the two-month Rapid DNA pilot in Louisiana, Florida, Arizona, and Texas. After that, Louisiana was chosen to be the location of the first actual program. 

The first thing the FBI had to consider when choosing the states to try its Rapid DNA testing in were which states allowed immediate DNA collection of arrestees at booking. Most states require a probable cause hearing in order for police to collect and test DNA. Thus, such states would not be good candidates for the program.

Last June, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida used the machine to reveal the identity of a homicide victim. Rapid DNA technology was also used to identify Lee County residents killed during Hurricane Ian.

Of course, whenever a new technology arrives, there are generally serious problems attached to it. In the case of Rapid DNA, privacy advocates as well as some forensic scientists contend that the technology will allow police to test people without their consent or to mishandle evidence that could affect prosecutions. 

Lynn Garcia, the general counsel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission says, “There is no question that getting faster DNA results is good for everyone in the criminal justice system. But we have to be sure that any technology is ready for prime time and is reliable and that the people who are using it are trained.”

Training is another paramount concern regarding Rapid DNA testing. Before Rapid DNA testing, a DNA swab would be sent to a laboratory, where technicians who possess the education, training, and experience requirements of the Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories or DNA Databasing Laboratories will analyze the sample.

Vincent A. Figarelli, the superintendent of Arizona’s Crime Laboratory Systems says that problems could arise when the DNA sample contains a mixture from several people. DNA from a single person should be simple enough to test, but a sample from multiple individuals would require a trained forensic scientist to properly interpret it.

Another concern is that if police are not properly trained on how to handle DNA samples, they could easily destroy an entire genetic sample.

In Houston, police were using Rapid DNA on crime scene evidence, without notifying the Houston science center. As soon as the Texas forensics commission found out, prosecutors told defense lawyers that roughly 80 cases involved DNA results determined outside of a laboratory.

Rapid DNA testing can be a massive game changer in law enforcement. However, without providing proper training to the officials who will be using the equipment, Rapid DNA testing can potentially cause more harm than good.  

Sources: PBS.org; fbi.gov; news-press.com; latimes.com

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