By Dr. Dena Weiss, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed the expeditious testing of DNA samples known as Rapid DNA analysis. Congress passed the Rapid DNA Act in 2017 with the hope of reducing the nationwide backlog of DNA cases.
The purpose of the fully automated processing of a buccal (oral swab) DNA sample is to obtain results in fewer than two hours. The legislation broadens the ability of law enforcement to use rapid DNA sequencing technology and upload resulting data into a federal database.
The Rapid DNA Act was created as an amendment to the DNA Identification Act of 1994. The law outlines the standards and procedures governing the use of Rapid DNA instrumentation. Requirements for training and quality assurance are mandated by the FBI. The act also permitted law enforcement agencies to use this instrumentation on arrestees in police booking stations in more than 30 states.
It is important to note that Rapid DNA has been approved only for profiling individuals and not for unknown crime scene samples.
Development of Rapid DNA
The technology can be used in the field rather than in a laboratory to confirm kinship with 99.5% certainty. The Rapid DNA instrumentation is linked to the national DNA database, also known as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). As of June, CODIS contained 14,262,250 offender DNA profiles, 4,026,438 arrestee DNA profiles, and 1,033,097 unknown DNA profiles from criminal investigations.
Receiving DNA results from a state lab can take months. But once an oral swab DNA sample is processed through the Rapid DNA instrument, within two hours the sample will have the DNA coded and the profile searched through CODIS for a possible link to any unsolved crime or match to an offender already in the system. Rapid DNA technology is now being used to reduce the giant forensic backlog in Illinois State Police crime labs.
Rapid DNA instrumentation maintenance cost on average $23,000. This may seem like an expensive investment initially, but compared to sending samples to a backlogged state forensic laboratory, the time and cost saved are impressive. DHS reports the cost of Rapid DNA is expected to quickly drop to $100 a sample (initially it was $230 a sample) compared to forensic laboratory sample costs of $500 a sample.
Verifying Family Ties of Immigrants
In the past, the primary demographic of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico was single adult men. In 2018, the United States began to experience an influx of non-lawful individuals entering the United States accompanied by a child.
Because DHS must release minors who cross the border within a short time, adult illegal immigrants learned that if they crossed the border with a child they would be released as well. Once released, most are never tracked down again for proper processing. Between April and June of 2019, DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identified 275 fraudulent family units.
ICE is using Rapid DNA technology to prevent illegal entry into the United States by the Family Unit (FAMU) fraudulent method. Immigrants have to prove that the parent and child relationship is valid.
In 2019, border patrol officers identified over 6,200 cases of FAMU fraud. According to DHS, with the advent of Rapid DNA, ICE can now determine the legitimacy of a parent-child relationship in 90 minutes. In a three-day pilot study in May of 2019, 84 questionable immigrants traveling with children were DNA tested and 16 represented fraudulent family units.
Natural Disaster and Mass Fatality Response
Rapid DNA instrumentation also has the ability to develop a DNA profile from blood, tissue and bone fragments. It was used in 2018 to identify victims of the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.
Rapid DNA was also used to confirm fingerprint identifications in the Oakland Ghost Ship Warehouse Disaster in California in December 2016, which killed 36 people. Using victims’ toothbrushes and other standards, Rapid DNA instrumentation presumptively identified all of the remains.
The hope is that in the future human remains can be tested on site rather than transported to a forensic laboratory. Other benefits would include not having to send forensic analysts to the disaster site and run multiple samples using Rapid DNA to produce results in fewer than two hours.
DNA Collection from Felons
Although not yet approved for the analysis of crime scene samples, Rapid DNA is currently under review for use during the booking process in law enforcement facilities. The FBI advises that Rapid DNA will be used only in states where laws permit the collection of DNA from arrestees and will be subject to approval by the National DNA Index System (NDIS).
Should DNA Analysis Be Conducted Outside a Laboratory Setting?
As might be expected, there are some privacy concerns related to DNA processing outside a controlled laboratory setting. Concerns include:
- Testing of individuals without their consent
- Lack of instrumentation maintenance
- Sample contamination
- Sample being consumed completely not leaving any material for an accredited laboratory to verify results or to provide for defense counsel.
DHS and FBI Rapid DNA protocols include encryption of data, a log of each step in the analysis of a sample, and the credentials of the personnel involved in processing the samples. An individual being run through the system is not required to provide a name, photo ID, or have that person’s fingerprints taken to preserve privacy. The DNA markers that are tagged only highlight familial markers and not physical traits, ethnicity, or medical conditions.
The FBI clearly states that crime scene samples (which often contain mixed DNA profiles) are only to be analyzed by an accredited forensic DNA laboratory. It is important to note that individuals who have not been trained by the FBI and the Scientific Working Group for DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM) cannot purchase and use Rapid DNA systems. The future may be bright for Rapid DNA systems, but only if quality and integrity are maintained.
About the Author: Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, she was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties. Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Sociology, a master’s degree in Forensic Science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice.