The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FBI plans ‘Rapid DNA’ network for quick database checks on arrestees

New machines create DNA profiles in less than two hours, rather than days or weeks

The rise of consumer genetic tests has provided law enforcement with new tools that have the potential to break open cold cases. (Video: Daron Taylor, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Though DNA has revolutionized modern crime fighting, the clues it may hold are not revealed quickly. Samples of saliva, or skin, or semen are sent to a crime lab by car (or mail), and then chemists get to work. Detectives are accustomed to waiting days or weeks, or longer, for the results. Some labs are so backed up, they take only the most serious crimes. Some samples are never tested.

But a portable machine about the size of a large desktop printer is changing that. A “Rapid DNA” machine can analyze the DNA in a swab and produce a profile of 20 specific loci on the DNA strand in less than two hours. Some local police departments and prosecutors have been using Rapid DNA machines for about five years to solve crimes.

In Orange County, Calif., recently, police investigating a stabbing found a trail of blood they believed was left by the assailant. The Rapid DNA machine was able to produce a profile that matched someone already in the Orange County database but who was “not on the radar” of investigators, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Contini said. He was arrested. “The speed with which you can give law enforcement these clues is critical,” Contini said. “When you are out on these suspects fast, they confess. We’ve had tremendous success.”

And last month, one of the two manufacturers of Rapid DNA machines, ANDE of Waltham, Mass., shipped six of the machines to California for use in trying to identify victims of the massive wildfires there, using DNA from family members to create a temporary searchable database.

However, the machines are not connected to CODIS, the FBI’s combined national DNA database. So the FBI is launching a Rapid DNA initiative to place the machines in police and sheriffs' booking stations around the country, hoping to enable law enforcement to check arrestees against the CODIS database and, when matches are made to DNA from unsolved crimes, head off the release of the suspects.

In testifying to Congress about the Rapid DNA network in 2015, then-FBI Director James B. Comey said the technology “would help us change the world in a very, very exciting way.” Comey said it would allow “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.”

Thirty states and the federal government allow DNA to be taken at the time of arrest. Sixteen states allow it to be analyzed immediately, and in the other 14 states, DNA may be taken at arrest but not analyzed until after arraignment on charges. The FBI expects a Rapid DNA network will not only enable more identifications of crime suspects, but also drastically reduce the time investigators spend waiting for DNA results and lessen the burden on crime labs.

Congress approved legislation last year authorizing the Rapid DNA network, and the FBI plans to roll it out slowly beginning next year. “Our goal in 2019,” said Thomas Callaghan, chief biometric scientist for the FBI Laboratory, “is to be able to have a pilot project done where we actually develop a DNA profile in a booking station, with no human review, and have it electronically enrolled and searched in the national database. We have to ensure that the quality that’s done in a lab can be done in a booking station,” which are often jails where fingerprints and mug shots are usually taken.

The FBI program will not allow the submission of unknown crime scene DNA from the Rapid DNA machines to the CODIS database. “The machines were initially developed,” Callaghan said, “for large amounts of DNA from a single person, soon after it’s collected.” Crime scene DNA could have a mixture of DNA from different sources, or be contaminated by its surroundings, and the machines have not proved “robust enough to handle crime scene samples,” Callaghan said, so the Rapid DNA submissions to CODIS may come only from known individuals.

Also, to facilitate quick responses, initial submissions from Rapid DNA machines will be checked only against a “DNA Index of Special Concern,” which includes unknown profiles from unsolved homicide, sexual assault, kidnapping and terrorism cases, the FBI said. The Rapid DNA submission will be checked against the entire CODIS database during a subsequent run of all DNA submissions from around the country, which is done once each day.

Privacy and technology advocates are leery of where Rapid DNA could lead, particularly because, as Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation observed, “there’s no agency that’s controlling the rollout of this technology.” The FBI acknowledged that anyone can buy a Rapid DNA machine, and police departments and prosecutors in Palm Bay, Fla., Cumberland County, Pa., Richland County, S.C., Tucson, Orange County, Calif., and the Utah attorney general’s office are using them, mostly to compare samples from crime scenes with known suspects, or simply to speed up DNA processing. Orange County has its own database of 180,000 arrestees against which it can compare unknown samples. The New York City medical examiner’s office recently purchased one of the machines to try to identify bodies that have been brought to the morgue without identification.

Lynch noted that people who are not trained in the collection of crime scene evidence might submit contaminated samples, and DNA has been shown to transfer from innocent people into crime scenes. In 2013, a San Jose man was charged with, and then exonerated of, murder when it was found that paramedics who took him to a hospital had unknowingly carried his DNA on their next run, to the scene of the homicide.

But the courts have approved the taking of DNA from arrestees and analyzing it, with the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 endorsing Maryland’s DNA practice as “like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Lynch said that “we learn more and more every day about DNA, and what can be determined from a DNA profile. ... I wonder if the Supreme Court would look at this differently now, now that we know how much information that DNA can tell us.”

The Rapid DNA machines are made by ANDE, which produces the ANDE 6C model, and IntegenX of Pleasanton, Calif., which developed the RapidHIT System. So far, only the ANDE 6C has been approved for the FBI’s Rapid DNA program. ANDE is not yet selling the machines to law enforcement agencies, instead selling only the disposable chips that facilitate each test, said Annette Mattern, the chief communications officer for ANDE. The company wants the price per DNA test to be below $200, which law enforcement officials said is much cheaper than the current cost of full lab tests.

“The people concerned about privacy are concerned about genetic profiles. That’s not what we do,” Mattern said. “When you look at the profile, it doesn’t tell us what you look like, or who your grandmother is. You can’t tell anything except that that is a match to another one. We believe it is as invasive as taking fingerprints.”

Mattern also said the chance for a sample being contaminated is less with a Rapid DNA machine because so many fewer steps, and fewer people, are involved. The sample does not need to be transported to a lab and be handled by various people there. The handling process is complete once a vial has been placed in a Rapid DNA machine.

The Utah attorney general’s office has two ANDE 6C machines, and “we’re extremely excited with the results we’ve gotten,” said Nate Mutter, the office’s assistant chief of investigations. He said many of the cases brought to him by counties around the state are gun cases in which investigators are trying to match DNA on a discarded gun with a known suspect. A burglar in Cache County, Utah, who left DNA on a soda can on Sept. 19 was identified, arrested and convicted by Oct. 17 — about the same amount of time a conventional DNA test alone would have taken.

“We’re not fishing for an unknown here,” Mutter said. “This is an investigative tool to make the link between suspects and items of evidence. Just because we can’t load the information into CODIS doesn’t mean the technology can’t be used to assist us.” He said the portability of the machines was a bonus. “You can bring it anywhere, and it still gives you lab-quality results,” Mutter said.

Lynch said that if the Rapid DNA machines “haven’t been validated for DNA mixtures, they certainly shouldn’t be used for that purpose,” and items such as guns and knives are good candidates to have more than one person’s DNA on them.

Contini, the Orange County prosecutor, said Rapid DNA could have long-term effects on crimes such as burglary and larceny, in which serial offenders tend to be involved. “You take a recidivist off the street early,” she said, “you’re not just solving crime, you’re preventing crime. And you’re benefiting public safety big time.”