Miami Cops Plan to Use New 90-Minute DNA Tests, Alarming Civil Liberty Groups

Miami Cops Plan to Use New 90-Minute DNA Tests, Alarming Civil Liberty Groups
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Traditionally, police need two to three months to collect, process, and analyze DNA samples. But with a new kind of technology recently adopted by the Miami Police Department, the entire procedure can be wrapped up in less time than it takes to watch a movie.

Soon enough, the agency says, it'll be able to analyze a suspect's DNA before he or she is even released from custody. That prospect deeply worries many civil liberties organizations, which warn rapid DNA testing could lead to widespread abuse without better oversight.

MPD claims the rapid DNA testing pilot program, which it's funding with a $137,000 federal grant, will allow for fewer evidence backlogs and more quickly resolved crimes.

"The significant reduction of time is game-changing," department staff wrote in its application for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistant Grant.

Privacy experts and civil rights groups, however, are less enthusiastic. For years, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations have cautioned that rapid DNA analysis is quickly spreading without regard for when, how, or why it should be used. They worry the emerging technology could lead to the creation of huge databases containing sensitive DNA information with few policies governing their use.

“It’s dangerous to have massive DNA databases with the scope of collection expanding rapidly, when we are far behind on proper policies governing its use,” Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Mercury News. “Should we draw the line at arrest? Should I be able to erase my DNA records if the arrest was wrongful or I wasn’t convicted? Should we draw the line at conviction? Why not put everybody’s DNA in the FBI’s database?”

Still, the FBI has long pushed for expanded use of the new technology because of its efficiency. After years of lobbying, a bill signed into law last year by President Donald Trump paved the way for law enforcement to input profiles collected by rapid DNA devices into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a growing national database of biometric data. Locally, Miami Beach is already using similar rapid DNA analysis.

MPD did not immediately respond to New Times' request for comment on how exactly the technology will be used. But the grant paperwork stipulates that DNA samples collected through the program must be entered into the FBI's national database.

When it applied for the federal funding, MPD wrote that the department will begin by using the system in homicide and sexual battery cases. Traditional DNA testing methods — in which samples are sent to the county crime lab for analysis — are expensive and time-consuming, the department said.

Miami cops will begin using the quick DNA tests by 2020, according to documents submitted for the grant, which called the new technology "critical to the success of combating crime, providing timely response, and ensuring public safety."

"DNA evidence is a useful and neutral tool in the search for justice," the grant application says. "Whether it helps convict or absolve individuals, DNA evidence plays an increasingly important role in solving crimes."
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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas