Rapid DNA Act of 2016 (S 2348, 114th Congress)
When compared to traditional DNA analysis methods, Rapid DNA instruments (shorthand for technology that generates automated analysis of a person’s DNA in a matter of hours) combine steps and ultimately decrease the length of time required to produce a result. In addition to creating standards for the use of Rapid DNA instruments, the goals of this bill are to apply information derived from use of this technology to 1) inform decisions about pretrial release or detention, 2) solve and prevent crimes, 3) exonerate the innocent, and 4) prevent DNA analysis backlogs.
- Creates a standard definition for Rapid DNA instruments as those that carry out “a fully automated process to derive a DNA analysis from a DNA sample;”
- Specifies that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director shall issue standards and procedures for use of Rapid DNA instruments & resulting DNA analysis;
- Includes a new category of actors who may prepare mandatory Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) information: Criminal justice agencies using Rapid DNA instruments that are (1) approved by the FBI Director, and (2) in compliance with their standards and procedures; and
- Allows the FBI Director to waive requirements regarding the collection and use of DNA identification information from certain federal and District of Columbia offenders, so long as their DNA samples are analyzed via Rapid DNA instrumentation and results are included in CODIS.
The FBI has been developing the CODIS program over the last three decades to assist federal, state, local, and international forensic laboratories in storing their DNA records for law enforcement investigative purposes. DNA information is shared among state and federal law enforcement agencies according to specific regulatory rules and structures that limit the unchecked sharing of information.
Analyzing a DNA sample for use in a criminal investigation requires four steps:
- Extraction: DNA contained on swabs taken from a suspect or crime scene must be isolated to eliminate all other contaminating material (i.e. cotton, dust, etc.).
- Amplification: One common method of DNA analysis is short tandem repeat (STR) profiling. Small sequences of DNA from 13 different loci (locations on a chromosome) are amplified using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This amplification step allows for DNA analysis from a very small amount of starting DNA.
- Separation: Individuals contain different numbers of repeats within these STRs (i.e. someone might have the repeat 10 times and another person, 20). Once amplified, DNA can be separated using a technique called gel electrophoresis.
- Detection: The size of the STR sequence can be determined using the gel from the previous step. While each locus might have a number of repeats shared by 5-20% of the population, looking at the 13 loci combined vastly decreases the odds of a duplicate profile within the population. The FBI can use this information to match DNA at crime scenes to DNA profiles in their system.
Rapid DNA analysis provides several advantages over canonical DNA analysis. For one, any DNA picked up from gloves, countertops, door handles etc. during DNA analysis can serve as a contaminant, complicating the DNA profiling process and interfering with accurate results. Rapid DNA analysis employs a hand free method, effectively minimizing chance of contamination. Secondly, DNA analysis can be quite time consuming, taking a lab hours to days to process a sample. Any backlog of samples will make this process even longer. Rapid DNA analysis can complete the process, swab in to profile out in about two hours, providing a much more high throughput system for DNA analysis.
Sara Katsanis, MS is a Duke University instructor in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. Her research focuses on policies for DNA testing in law enforcement and human rights contexts.
Endorsements & Opposition
- National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) pledged strong support for this bill in a press release: “The Rapid DNA Act of 2015 will ensure that law enforcement agencies that use rapid DNA technology can upload profiles generated by those instruments into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) in the field, following standards and procedures to be issued by the FBI, rather than having to go through an accredited crime lab. With science and technology evolving, this legislation allows law enforcement to keep pace, strengthening our ability to safeguard our communities.”
- FBI Director James Comey praised S. 2348 as a “very exciting tool that will enable law enforcement officials to obtain results from DNA samples in criminal investigations,” according to a news article.
More broadly, supporters claim that CODIS allows for more efficient law enforcement investigations.
- As of May 24, 2016, there are no known formal letters of opposition against S. 2348.
More broadly, some argue that sharing STR profiles violates individual privacy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated in a 2008 report, DNA Testing to Establish Family Relationships in the Refugee Context, that DNA Testing “can have serious implications for the right to privacy.”
Others think there are drawbacks to this technology, such as its high cost and limited sensitivity.