Despite Privacy Concerns, Miami Beach Police Testing "Rapid DNA" Scans on Suspects

For years, the FBI has been pushing police to adopt "rapid DNA" testing technology, which would let cops quickly obtain the kind of analysis that crime labs usually take months to pull from hair samples or cheek swabs. But privacy experts have long warned that the emerging technology could also lead to huge databases of DNA used for all sorts of reasons by the federal government or local forces.

Despite those worries, the Miami Beach Police Department recently revealed it has been quietly running a rapid DNA testing program for months. Since April, MBPD has been testing a single rapid-DNA-scanning machine (without fully disclosing the scope of the program to the public), making it the only department in the nation permitted to "fully field test" the device, according to a letter sent to the city commission.

"Accurate Rapid DNA testing is inevitable in the future of American criminal justice," City Manager Jimmy Morales writes in the letter. "However, the technology first must be proven to work effectively for police crime scene technicians in the field and for detectives who investigate unsolved crimes."

Instead of sending DNA evidence out for lab testing, departments that use rapid-scan technology can simply swab a suspect's cheek, run the evidence through the quick-scan machine (the ANDE 6C Rapid DNA Analysis system, in MBPD's case), and receive results in roughly two hours. In a move that will likely trouble privacy advocates, an order that Chief Dan Oates signed August 11 notes the DNA samples will be entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), an ever-growing national database of criminal suspects' biometric data.

MBPD spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez tells New Times the department takes cheek swabs only from suspects who voluntarily consent to a scan. During the current testing period, MBPD takes two cheek swabs from suspects: One is run through the rapid sampler, and the other is sent to the Miami-Dade County Police crime lab for standard testing.

For now, if a rapid scan turns up a "high-profile" or "serious" match, the MDPD crime lab has agreed to work with the police department to expedite the standard DNA test. According to a departmental order attached to Morales' letter, Beach cops are also allowed to test samples found at crime scenes, "samples lawfully obtained during the course of a criminal investigation," and samples from dead suspects or human remains.

Here's Rodriguez standing next to the machine, which looks a bit like an office copier:
Morales' letter notes that rapid sampling is not yet recognized as evidence in court — but it is used by the military on enemy combatants, representing yet another instance in which technology developed for the U.S. military has creeped into civilian life. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County Police tried to test "wide-area surveillance" planes on the public; the planes record up to 32 square miles of a city's movements at once and were previously used to track insurgents planting car bombs in Iraq. MDPD also announced this month that it will begin rolling military-grade police trucks through town as a random show of force to dissuade would-be criminals. These technologies are being adopted right as crime in Miami-Dade County is dropping to levels not seen since before the city's cocaine boom began in the late '70s.

"Although this technology has been used successfully by U.S. military and intelligence operatives to identify suspected enemies in conflict areas for several years, instrument-produced Rapid DNA profiles are not yet recognized as evidence for criminal prosecutions in American courts," Morales writes in his letter.

But forensics experts and legal analysts have warned against blindly letting rapid-DNA-scanning technology spread without deeply interrogating when, why, and how the technology is used. Civil liberties groups in particular have warned the technology could be used to create an unprecedented DNA database of American citizens. In 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned that DNA evidence is especially sensitive: In addition to serving as identifying evidence, our DNA also reveals our family members, racial heritage, and predispositions for disease, for example.

In 2012, rapid DNA scans were being used in refugee camps in Turkey to help figure out whether displaced people were related. But even five years ago, the EFF was warning that the technology could later be used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hunt down the relatives of undocumented immigrants, for example. EFF lawyer Jennfier Lynch wrote:
However, the real issues with expanded DNA collection—and the issues these documents don’t answer—are whether DNA collection is really necessary to solve the challenges inherent in proving refugee entitlement to benefits; what standards and laws will govern expanded federal, state and local DNA collection and subsequent searches; how DNA will be collected, stored and secured; who will have access to it after it’s collected; and what processes are in place to destroy the DNA sample and delete data from whatever database it’s stored in after it’s served the limited purpose for which it was originally collected. Without answers to these questions, no amount of “social conditioning” can convince those concerned about privacy and civil liberties that expanded DNA collection is a good idea.
The FBI has been lobbying the federal government and the D.C. Legislature to create a national DNA database. In 2015, FBI Director James Comey pushed for a bill called the Rapid DNA Act of 2015, which he said "would help us change the world in a very, very exciting way" by creating a national, searchable DNA network of every criminal suspect in the nation. That bill failed, as did a 2016 version, but another version passed unanimously in the Senate in May 2017 and now awaits House approval. (Sen. Orrin Hatch proposed each version.) The bill would also allow rapid DNA results to be used as evidence in court.

The August 11 directive that Chief Oates signed noted that the DNA samples run through the new rapid-testing program will be subsequently entered "into the state's DNA database and to CODIS," the national FBI database, after the results have been double-checked by the Miami-Dade crime lab.

Morales' letter noted that the rapid DNA testing system has already led to two biometric matches: DNA recovered from a handgun successfully ID'ed a suspect accused of committing a shooting on Memorial Day weekend, and evidence taken from a car's gearshift was matched with someone who allegedly committed a hit-and-run.

"The FBI will be kept apprised of the progress of the initiative and has agreed to advise us as we proceed forward," Morales wrote.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.