Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Reappearing Rapid DNA Act

With bipartisan sponsorship, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 (H.R.510 and S. 139) is sailing through Congress. The Senate bill made it to the legislative calendar on May 11, 2017, without amendment and without a written report from the Judiciary Committee.  The Committee Chairman, Senator Grassley, wrote this about the bill:
Turning to legislation, the first bill is S.139, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017. It is sponsored by Senator Hatch. The Committee reported this bill and the Senate passed it in the last Congress. The bill would establish standards for a new category of DNA samples that can be taken more quickly and then uploaded to our national DNA index. 1/
This characterization is misleading. The bill itself contains no standards for producing profiles to upload to the national database. It orders the FBI to “issue standards.” Specifically, the part of the bill entitled “standards” adds to the DNA Identification Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14131(a), a new Section 5, which reads as follows:
(A) ... the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation shall issue standards and procedures for the use of Rapid DNA instruments and resulting DNA analyses.
(B) In this Act, the term ‘Rapid DNA instruments’ means instrumentation that carries out a fully automated process to derive a DNA analysis from a DNA sample. 2/
But the FBI does not need new authorization to devise standards for “Rapid DNA instruments.” The “resulting DNA analyses” are not a new category of “samples,” and some such profiles already may be in the National DNA Index System (NDIS). In fact, the FBI issued standards for “rapid” profiles years ago. One need only peek at the FBI's forthright answers to “Frequently Asked Questions on Rapid DNA Analysis.” There, the FBI explained that
Based upon recommendations from the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM), the FBI Director approved and issued The Addendum to the Quality Assurance Standards for DNA Databasing Laboratories performing Rapid DNA Analysis and Modified Rapid DNA Analysis Using a Rapid DNA Instrument (or “Rapid QAS Addendum”). The Addendum contains the quality assurance standards specific to the use of a Rapid DNA instrument by an accredited laboratory; it took effect December 1, 2014.
The FBI added that “[a]n accredited laboratory participating in NDIS may use CODIS to upload authorized known reference DNA profiles developed with a Rapid DNA instrument performing Modified Rapid DNA Analysis to NDIS if [certain] requirements are satisfied” and that “DNA records generated by an NDIS-approved Rapid DNA system performing Rapid DNA analysis in an NDIS participating laboratory are eligible for NDIS.” 3/

But if the FBI does not need the bill to develop standards or to incorporate rapid-DNA results into NDIS, what is the real purpose of the bill? The answer is simple. The bill clears the way for these results to come, not from accredited laboratories, 4/ but from police stations, jails, or prisons. The House Judiciary Committee was explicit in its brief report on the bill:
Currently, booking stations have to send their DNA samples off to state labs and wait weeks for the results. This has created a backlog that impacts all criminal investigations using forensics, not just forensics used for identification purposes. H.R. 510 would modify the current law regarding DNA testing and access to CODIS. The short turnaround time resulting from increased use of Rapid DNA technology would help to quickly eliminate potential suspects, capture those who have committed a previous crime and left DNA evidence, as well as free up current DNA profilers to do advanced forensic DNA analysis, such as crime scene analysis and rape-kits. 5/
The FBI was more succinct when it referred to “the goal of using Rapid DNA systems in the booking environment” and reported that “legislation will be needed in order for DNA records that are generated by Rapid DNA systems outside an accredited laboratory to be uploaded to NDIS.6/

Is the migration of DNA profiling from the laboratory to the police station — and potentially to the officer on the street — a good idea? The efficiency argument from the House Committee has some force. We do not demand that only accredited laboratories conduct breath alcohol testing of drivers who seem to be intoxicated. Police using properly maintained portable instruments can do the job. 7/

How is DNA different? In one respect, it is less problematic than roadside alcohol testing. Rapid DNA analysis is not for crime-scene samples. (At least, not yet.) It is for samples from arrestees or convicted offenders whose profiles can be uploaded to a database. The police have an incentive to avoid uploading inaccurate profiles. Such profiles will degrade the effectiveness of the database. Any cold hits that they might produce will be shown to be false when a later DNA test from the suspect fails to replicate the incorrect profile. In contrast, incriminating output of a faulty alcohol test usually enables a conviction and will not be shown to be in error.

But there is more to the matter than efficiently generating and uploading profiles. It could be argued that DNA information is more private that a breath alcohol measurement and that having CODIS profiles known to local police is more dangerous than having it known only to laboratory personnel. Considering the limited kind of information that is present in a CODIS profile, however, this argument does not strike me as compelling.


The Rapid DNA Act of 2017 met no opposition as the Senate and House passed the bills. S. 139 generated unanimous consent (and no discussion) on May 16. 8/ Its counterpart, H.R. 510, passed after receiving praise from two of its sponsors and the observation from Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) that "this is a good bill. It is a bipartisan bill. I thank Members on both sides of the aisle for their contributions to this effort." 9/

  1. Prepared Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee Executive Business Meeting, May 11, 2017, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/05-11-17%20Grassley%20Statement.pdf, viewed May 16, 2017.
  2. Rapid DNA Act of 2017, S. 139 § 2(a).
  3. The difference between “Rapid DNA Analysis” and “Modified Rapid DNA Analysis” is that the former is “a “swab in – profile out” process ... of automated extraction, amplification, separation, detection, and allele calling without human intervention,” whereas the latter uses “human interpretation and technical review” for ascertaining the alleles in a profile. FBI, Frequently Asked Questions on Rapid DNA Analysis, https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis/rapid-dna-analysis, Nos. 1 &2, viewed May 17, 2017.
  4. The DNA Identification Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14131, which the Rapid DNA Act amends, requires the FBI to create and consider the recommendations of "an advisory board on DNA quality assurance methods." § 14131(a)(1)(A).  The members of the board must come from "nominations proposed by the head of the National Academy of Sciences and professional societies of crime laboratory officials." Id. They "shall develop, and if appropriate, periodically revise, recommended standards for quality assurance, including standards for testing the proficiency of forensic laboratories, and forensic analysts, in conducting analyses of DNA." § 14131(a)(1)(C). As the name indicates, the board is purely advisory. The Act only demands that
    The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after taking into consideration such recommended standards, shall issue (and revise from time to time) standards for quality assurance, including standards for testing the proficiency of forensic laboratories, and forensic analysts, in conducting analyses of DNA.
    § 14131(a)(2).
    The advisory board was a half-a-loaf response to the recommendation of a National  Academy of Sciences committee for "a National Committee on Forensic DNA Typing (NCFDT) under the auspices of an appropriate government agency, such as NIH or NIST, to provide expert advice primarily on scientific and technical issues concerning forensic DNA typing." NRC Committee on DNA Technology in Forensic Science, DNA Technology in Forensic Science 72-73 (1992). Now that NIST has established an Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science to develop science-based standards for DNA testing and other forensic science methods, Congress should reconsider the need for the overlapping FBI board.
  5. On May 11, 2017, the House Committee on the Judiciary recommended adoption of H.R. 510 without holding hearings. The Judiciary Committee saw no need to consult independent scientists. It was satisfied with the fact that
    the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations held a hearing on a virtually identical bill, H.R. 320, on June 18, 2015, [at which] testimony was received from: Ms. Amy Hess, Executive Assistant Director of Science and Technology, Federal Bureau of Investigation; Ms. Jody Wolf, Assistant Crime Laboratory Administrator, Phoenix Police Department Crime Laboratory, President, American Society of Criminal Laboratory Directors; and Ms. Natasha Alexenko, Founder, Natasha’s Justice Project.
    Report to accompany H.R. 510, May 11, 2017, https://www.congress.gov/115/crpt/hrpt117/CRPT-115hrpt117.pdf
  6. FBI Answers, No. 13, https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis/rapid-dna-analysis, viewed May 17, 2017 (emphasis added).
  7. “As of January 1, 2017, there is no Rapid DNA system that is approved for use by an accredited forensic laboratory for performing Rapid DNA Analysis.” Several systems had been approved but they do “not contain the 20 CODIS Core Loci required as of January 1, 2017.” FBI Answers, No. 6, https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis/rapid-dna-analysis, viewed May 16, 2017. 
  8. 163 Cong. Rec. S2954-2955, 115th Cong., 1st Sess., May 16, 2017.
  9. Id. at H4205.

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