Rapid DNA is a new technique that can analyze DNA samples in about 90 minutes, instead of days or even weeks as it took previously. A bill that passed the Senate and House last week would expand the use of this technology.
What the bill does
The Rapid DNA Act establishes a system for Rapid DNA’s nationwide coordination among law enforcement departments, by connecting it to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System.
Former FBI Director James Comey cited a real-life example of how the technology could be used effectively. “[It will] allow us, 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,” Comey said in testimony.
Rapid DNA was used for the first time ever in a criminal investigation in 2013, to nab burglars who stole more than $30,000 worth of items from an Air Force Member’s Florida home while they were serving in Afghanistan. Presumably more such cases would be solved and quickly with expanded use of rapid DNA.
What supporters say
Supporters say it will save both time and taxpayer dollars by speeding up the DNA analysis process in a manner that’s no less effective, reducing the backlog of samples waiting to be tested.
“It will enable officers to take advantage of exciting new developments in DNA technology to more quickly solve crimes and exonerate innocent suspects,” Senate lead sponsor Hatch said in a press release. “Under this legislation, rather than having to all send DNA samples to crime labs and wait weeks for results, trained officers will be able to process many samples in less than two hours.”
What opponents say
GovTrack Insider could not locate any members of Congress who expressed public opposition to the legislation, but some members of the public are concerned. The New Republic called the rise of rapid DNA “troubling,” citing the potential for privacy violations and misuses by immigration authorities. They also noted that the FBI already has DNA samples from more than 3.5 percent of Americans, a number likely to grow thanks to a 2015 Supreme Court decision allowing DNA samples to be taken without a warrant.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation expressed doubts about the accuracy of Rapid DNA. “Rapid DNA has only been tested on single-source samples — like a swab taken directly from a person’s inner cheek,” the EFF writes. “And yet, Rapid DNA manufacturers are trying to convince law enforcement agencies to buy these machines to get through their backlog of rape kits and for low-level property crimes — situations where there’s a very good chance the DNA came from multiple people — some of whom may have had no connection to the crime at all.
Votes and odds of passage
The legislation attracted a bipartisan mix of 12 Senate cosponsors, seven Republicans and five Democrats, and 24 House cosponsors, 17 Republicans and seven Democrats. It passed both the House and Senate on May 16, by a unanimous consent voice vote in both chambers, meaning no record of individual votes was recorded. It now goes to President Trump’s desk, where he appears likely to sign it.