The State Department also sees potential in R-DNA for paternity testing in consular offices throughout the world. Point of contact paternity testing may put an end to fighting through forged or inadequate birth records to determine familial relationships when visas are requested based on familial relationships. Given a more accurate process, there may actually be a deterrent effect to fraudulent visa applications. It is one thing to come into the U.S. Embassy, submit some forged documentation in support of one’s visa application, go home, and wait, hoping no one discovers the fraud. It’s another thing to come into the U.S. Embassy, sit down, have your DNA tested and compared to your “relative’s DNA” while you are looking right at the U.S. Immigration official.
And since, as explained in the presentations at the biometrics conference, the R-DNA devices are also being “ruggedized,” the mobile DNA unit becomes a more realistic proposition. The more mobile the analysis process, the closer we get to an application which enables United States, United Nations, or other forces to quickly test DNA in the context of humanitarian violence and genocidal rape. And in the context of mass disasters, imagine the impact of identifying loved ones in hours rather than days, weeks, or months.
Now some of these applications are beyond the discussion held in Tampa. There was little talk of applications beyond the initial use of these devices for offender profiling, and rightly so at this point. They are however all within a fair vision of the future based on the miniaturization of the DNA analysis process. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” What will rightly start off with the limited identification of individuals in police stations in a few departments throughout the country will gradually expand in number and function.
Interestingly, the emergence of these devices is relevant to today’s case law and to the efforts being made to end law enforcement’s authority to take DNA upon arrest. Organizations like the ACLU continue to file more challenges against both state and Federal authorizations of arrestee testing. In its response to those challenges, among the several arguments made on behalf of the government, is the importance of law enforcement’s ability to ensure the identity of suspects when arrested. It’s a fair argument and one often made in the context of fingerprint collections. But the court in The People of the State of California v. Mark Buza called the government on its assertion that law enforcement needed DNA at arrest for identification purposes. In its decision declaring arrestee testing unconstitutional, the Buza Court made the undeniable observation that, regardless of the intent of arrestee testing to help police identify suspects they have in custody, on a practical level, the current state of DNA analysis speed leaves the actual identification by DNA months away from the time of arrest of a suspect. These rapid DNA devices however make that immediate identification a reality, and thus the rationale for arguing arrestee testing constitutionality, a realistic—and constitutional—purpose.
Now, if you read this column even occasionally, you know that I have rarely met a DNA application I didn’t like and didn’t want done sooner rather than later—until now. Not that I want to slow this process down, but the implications here are too important to rush into. One of the reasons that DNA has developed so successfully in the United States (just because I have a habit of ranting when I think we can do better doesn’t mean I don’t think we’ve done tremendously well here) is because we have moved slowly and deliberately. We’ve gone ahead steadily, one step at a time, rather than moving so fast that we make mistakes causing us to take two steps back. The ACLU would like nothing better than to find a reason to stop DNA testing at arrest regardless of how many lives it can save by solving crime faster. Saving lives isn’t their agenda. But it is law enforcement’s agenda as well as the agenda of the laboratories that support law enforcement. So we have to get it right, all of it, from the beginning.