Rapid DNA Testing in the Field
Published May 17, 2017 / Updated August 6, 2020

Rapid DNA Testing in the Field

Should law enforcement have technology that would allow them to perform rapid DNA tests in the field?

by Caitlin Martin

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Image credit: By Nogas1974 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons

What is it?

On Tuesday, May 16, the House will consider H.R. 510 — Rapid DNA Act of 2017. This bill is sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI). It is intended to allow law enforcement officers to use a screening instrument called Rapid DNA to test genetic material of suspects in the field. This legislation allows the use of genetic testing by officers who are not technicians working in an accredited lab. The bill has 24 co-sponsors — 17 Republicans and 7 Democrats.

What’s it mean to me?

The bill is intended to enable the use of technology to quickly clear innocent civilians, detain criminals, and free up technicians to clear rape kit backlogs. At this time, only DNA swabs analyzed in an accredited lab are permitted to be run against the FBI’s central DNA database. According to Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), “Arrestees may be exonerated in crimes in two hours rather than waiting for up to 72 hours for release or months for more standard DNA testing.

Advocates of civil liberties, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worry about how easily and quickly law enforcement officers with no scientific training will be able to instantly process DNA samples, arguing that this could increase domestic surveillance. Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated, “EFF has long been concerned about the privacy risks associated with collecting, testing, storing, and sharing of genetic data. The use of Rapid DNA stands to vastly increase the collection of DNA, because it makes it much easier for the police to get it from anyone they want, whenever they want … Rapid DNA can’t accurately extract a profile from evidence containing commingled body fluids, increasing the risk that people could be mistakenly linked to crimes they didn’t commit.”

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