A DNA evidence bill that would let police in the field, not just technicians in an accredited lab, quickly test the genetic material of suspects has advanced to the House floor.
The measure centers around a relatively new screening instrument the size of a printer, called Rapid DNA.
The idea behind the technology is to swiftly clear innocents, detain criminals and free up technicians to clear rape kit backlogs, among other things, say Judiciary Committee members who crafted the bill.
Currently, only DNA swabs analyzed in a crime lab, a process that can take many weeks, are permitted to be run against the FBI's central DNA database for matches.
Rapid DNA analysis would have "profound implications" for criminal justice, said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who co-sponsored the measure.
"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," he said before Thursday's voice vote of approval.
» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
The measure is not expected to come up for a floor vote until the panel wraps up a package of related criminal justice reforms, a Judiciary Committee aide told Nextgov on background.
Committee ranking Democrat Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said the bill will have "real-world consequences" in places like his district, where there is a backlog of DNA evidence from sexual assaults.
While Rapid DNA is not suited to handle rape kits and other forensic evidence, use of the instrument to identify booked offenders could make more technicians available for backlog processing.
As of March, Detroit technicians had tested about 10,000 backlogged rape kits, resulting in the identification of 753 potential serial rapists and 36 convictions, Conyers said.
Genetic Analysis on the Fly Could Lead to Abuse, Say Critics
But some civil liberties advocates are concerned the ease with which nonscientists can instantly process DNA samples might increase domestic surveillance. Long before Congress took action, the FBI had been planning to incorporate Rapid DNA results into its massive Next Generation Identification biometric system, the successor to the FBI's old Automated Fingerprint Identification System.
"Police officers are already using mobile tools to collect other biometrics like fingerprints and face recognition when they detain people on the street, and there have been cases where officers have collected DNA on the street as well — even from kids they have detained," said Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
At a June 2015 Judiciary subcommittee hearing, FBI Executive Assistant Director Amy Hess, testified that the bureau is working "to determine the interfaces necessary for the integration of the Rapid DNA components into the criminal history record and booking station infrastructure originally established for the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.”
FBI Director James Comey, in addressing privacy concerns, has said people need to understand that Rapid DNA is not about collecting genetic material from more people.
"It's about the DNA that's collected when someone is arrested being able to be analyzed much more quickly," he said, testifying at a December Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "That can show us in some cases this is the wrong person or can show us in some cases this is someone we have to be very worried about."
Could 'Change the World'
Comey said authorizing Rapid DNA technology to hook up with the FBI DNA database would "change the world."
The legislative proposal would allow authorities, "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," he said. "We are very grateful that we're going to have the statutory authorization if that passes to connect those rapid DNA technologies to the national DNA database."
Lynch said the intent of the bill and the outcome of the bill’s passing may be very different.
"Despite Comey’s statements, this bill will likely result in DNA collection from more people," she said. "Allowing Rapid DNA to be entered into CODIS will incentivize more law enforcement agencies to purchase and use Rapid DNA technology."
The Homeland Security Department, which is testing the technology to verify relationships among immigrants, estimates the price per profile is about $235 with the machine, versus $500 with a lab technician.
"Like all law enforcement technologies, once agencies have already invested money, they will try to use that technology in as many contexts as they can—in the case of Rapid DNA, there is nothing in the bill to stop agencies from using it to collect DNA from people stopped on the street," Lynch said. “The technology is portable, and, apparently not difficult to use, so there’s nothing to prevent an officer from using the machine right out of the trunk of a squad car.”
Responding to civil liberties concerns, the Judiciary aide pointed to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that ruled the warrantless collection of DNA from those arrested for a serious crime does not violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.