The introduction of fingerprinting and DNA testing as means of identification was a gamechanger for law enforcement. While controversial at the time of their initial deployment, those identification technologies have proven their innate value time and time again to both crime investigators and society – scores of serious criminals have been convicted and taken off the street while innocent people have been exonerated thanks to those same identification technologies.  

Rapid DNA could be the next frontier of ID technology.

What is Rapid DNA:

Rapid DNA testing has been around since 2010. It is the automated process of obtaining an accurate DNA profile without need for human analysis. Law enforcement can take a cheek swab of an individual under arrest and insert the sample into the Rapid DNA machine, which is about the size of a printer. Rapid DNA provides a DNA profile within 90 minutes. The DNA sample is then compared to other samples within the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and those from unsolved violent crimes.

In order for Rapid DNA testing to be used, such as in the case following an arrest, states must have an arrestee DNA collection law that authorizes DNA analysis at the time of arrest. So far, 30 states and the federal government allow it. DNA profiles are kept if there is a conviction; however, depending on the state law, if there is no conviction following an arrest, or if the initial crime did not warrant a DNA sample being taken, the DNA profile can be expunged from the system either automatically or upon individual request.

Benefits of Rapid DNA:

  • Rapid DNA’s largest benefit by far is its speed. The current process for traditional DNA testing takes a long time – weeks, if not months – to obtain an accurate analysis. Rapid DNA can produce a DNA profile within two hours while suspects are still in police custody, reducing flight risk.
  • Another potential benefit is there is less risk of the DNA sample being contaminated. Traditional DNA testing requires a sample to be identified, collected and transported to a DNA lab facility, then to be handled again by the lab technicians. This equates to more opportunity for contamination. With Rapid DNA, fewer individuals are handling the sample and fewer processing steps are involved, lowering risk of contamination. Once the sample is inserted into the Rapid DNA machine, the handling process is complete.

Drawbacks with Rapid DNA:

  • Rapid DNA testing requires a sufficient amount of individual DNA material present in order to give a correct analysis. This means the DNA sample must be sourced from a known individual versus that from a crime scene – for example, only the DNA taken from an individual under arrest can be tested with Rapid DNA rather than DNA found at a convenience store robbery. DNA samples collected from crime scenes cannot be analyzed by Rapid DNA or compared to existing profiles in CODIS because crime scenes often contain mixed profiles and would need a trained forensic scientist to interpret the results. The FBI is currently creating quality control standards for local police agencies to follow when using forensic DNA samples with Rapid DNA testing.
  • The validity of Rapid DNA results could still be called into question during a court case simply due to its novelty. If law enforcement personnel on scene use up the entire DNA sample during the Rapid DNA testing and do not leave enough for an accredited lab to analyze, the accuracy of the sample could be called into question.

How is Rapid DNA currently being used:

Law enforcement agencies are already taking advantage of the speed and ease of use Rapid DNA testing provides. Here are a few ways it is currently being used:

  • California is using Rapid DNA to identify victims of the massive wildfires and Conception boat fire. They are able take a genetic sample from human remains to confirm identity.
  • Kentucky is using Rapid DNA to identify sexual assault offenders and clear those falsely accused.
  • Utah has used Rapid DNA to identify missing hiker remains.

Next Steps:

While Rapid DNA has already begun to make its mark on evidence gathering, much opportunity lies in its future – could it be used one day to eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits? Can it connect DNA found on murder weapons to the appropriate suspect? Will it be able to take even the tiniest DNA sample from a crime scene and unveil a correct DNA profile?

These are the questions that Rapid DNA could one day answer as the technology continues to advance. Much is still to be discovered about Rapid DNA and how it can be used to achieve the goals mentioned above. Thoughtful consideration into the pros and cons, as well as proper training and certifications, should be a priority as more and more agencies seek to leverage the power of Rapid DNA testing.