Bensalem, Pa., near Philadelphia, is on the leading edge of a revolution in crime-solving, the New York Times reports. In early 2017, the city’s police booking station became the nation’s first to install a Rapid DNA machine, dubbed the “magic box,” which provides results in 90 minutes. Since then, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have begun operating similar machines and analyzing DNA on their own. In 2017, President Trump signed the Rapid DNA Act, which starting this year will enable approved booking stations in several states to connect their Rapid DNA machines to Codis, the national DNA database. Law-enforcement officials say the devices have provided leads in hundreds of cases, helping to facilitate arrests and exonerate falsely accused individuals.
Legal experts and scientists are troubled by the way the technology is being used. Police agencies collect DNA not only from people who have been charged with major crimes but also from people who are merely deemed suspicious, permanently linking their genetic identities to criminal databases. “It’s a lot harder to resist the temptation just to run some people’s DNA, just to see if there’s anything useful that you get out of it,” said New York University law Prof. Erin Murphy, author of “Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA.” There is little agreement on which types of genetic material should be run through the device. Valuable genetic evidence is likely to be rendered useless if handled by nonexperts, and police officers risk being misled by the results of Rapid DNA analysis. “There are not the same standards and rules and safeguards that are in place for the national database,” said Michael Coble of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. “Who is going to change that? I don’t know.”