The Literal and Figurative Costs of Rapid DNA

September 13, 2017

In August, President Donald Trump, signed into law the Rapid DNA Act of 2017, with support of the National Association of Police Organizations and the National Fraternal Order of Police. Prior to the enactment, when law enforcement agencies would send DNA samples to government agencies for testing, it could take weeks or longer for DNA results arrive. But under the act, a system will be established for integration of Rapid DNA instruments—a fully automated, hands-free process—for use by law enforcement. According to Representative Jim Sensebrenner (R-WI), who introduced the bill, the system “will help quickly identify arrestees and offenders and reduce the overwhelming backlog in forensic DNA analysis,” streamlining crime fighting efforts, preventing future crimes from ever occurring, and saving tax payer dollars.
Robert Schueren, CEO of IntegenX, called the passage a “landmark day.” The company, which claims to be “the market leader of Rapid DNA technology for human identification in forensics and law enforcement applications,” can process DNA and alert investigators to whether an arrestee’s DNA matches that in the FBI database, which houses information on almost 13 million people, in only 90 minutes. Now, before an arrestee has even finished being processed, a DNA match can be confirmed. A tweet from Schueren echoes the sentiment of Rep. Sensebrenner, stating that the technology, in conjunction with the act, “makes our communities safer.”

The Rapid DNA Act of 2017 may indeed provide for more security through quicker DNA results, but not without costs.

Critics condemn the law for the sacrifice of privacy and civil liberties that result from the enactment. Michael Risher, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, states that the law is “dangerous;” people who are arrested for a crime, but in the end not convicted, nonetheless have their DNA registered into the FBI database. And the Innocence Project, which has utilized DNA samples to achieve most of its wrongful conviction exonerations, although less critical of the act, urges caution. Paul Cates, Communications Director for the organization, believes that stakeholders in the criminal justice system need be consulted to “ensure that Rapid DNA technology is applied justly and fairly.”
Beyond its legal consequences, use of Rapid DNA raises concerns of the limited scope of the technology and the monetary cost. Since the Rapid DNA technology can only test samples from a high-quality, single source, the Act will not directly help with rape kit backlogs or crime scene samples; however, Debbie Smith, founder of H-E-A-R-T, Inc. (Hope Exists After Rape Trauma), opines that the act “will help free up crime laboratory resources, allowing them to be more focused on the testing of backlogged rape kits.” And the use of the technology, although cheaper per sample than the traditional method, could lead to more overall spending on DNA tests. Whereas a traditional DNA test can cost $500 per sample, a Rapid DNA test costs between $235 and $350 per sample to process, and the costs are expected to fall as production increases, the goal being less than $100 per sample. But the quick turnaround time could entice law enforcement officials to conduct more DNA testing. Depending on the level of increase in demand as prices drop, the result could be a higher total spending, potentially offsetting, or even surpassing, the desired savings on taxpayer dollars.
Increased use of Rapid DNA technology certainly has its benefits, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. The exact price of its increased security remains to be seen.