Journal No. 253 January 2006
DNA Analysis for “Minor” Crimes: A Major Benefit
for Law Enforcement
Edwin Zedlewski and Mary B. Murphy
About the Authors
When law enforcement officers arrive at the scene of a
major crime, they routinely collect biological evidence:
blood, semen, hair strands. The evidence goes to the crime
lab, where forensic technicians analyze the DNA and run
the “profile” against the national, State, or
local DNA database, hoping to get a “hit” or
match that will help bring the offender to justice.
Murders and sexual assaults receive top priority for DNA
analysis, and officers routinely look for biological evidence
at these crime scenes.
Property crimes, on the other hand, are a different story.
In many cases, officers do not routinely collect biological
evidence at property crime scenes—perhaps because
they assume burglars do not leave DNA, or because departmental
policies do not authorize that samples be taken at property
As more State legislatures expand the categories of offenders
required to submit DNA samples, DNA databases continue to
grow at a steady rate.
For example, notes William David Coffman, Crime Laboratory
Analyst Supervisor–DNA Database at the Florida Department
of Law Enforcement, Florida’s database contained 74,301
samples in 2000. By 2004, that number had more than tripled
to 236,491. The
increasing number of samples submitted and number of requests
for analysis have generated oppressive caseloads for already
understaffed crime labs. In response, the labs have had
to relegate the analysis of DNA evidence from property offenses—if
such evidence is recovered at all—to a back seat in
favor of more pressing, high-profile cases. Untested DNA
samples from property and other crime scenes are creating
a massive backlog of untested samples. (See
But three NIJ pilot projects have demonstrated that analyzing
DNA from property crimes can be extraordinarily useful.
Officials at the Miami-Dade County Police Department, the
New York City Police Department, and the Palm Beach County
Sheriff’s Office have had success solving high-volume
property crimes (like burglary and auto theft) as well as
violent crimes (such as sexual assault and murder) using
funds provided by NIJ. Although the initial goal of the
project was to reduce the large backlog of DNA evidence
waiting to be analyzed, participants made the unexpected
discovery that analyzing DNA from property crimes can have
major public safety benefits.
REDUCING THE BACKLOG
Recent years have witnessed a significant backlog of
casework samples in crime labs across the country. In
addition to the backlog of DNA evidence collected through
case investigations, there is also a backlog of DNA data
from known offenders waiting to be input into searchable
databases. Furthermore, while many States have statutes
authorizing the collection of DNA evidence from a variety
of convicted offenders, substantial numbers of authorized
samples have yet to even be collected, let alone analyzed.
The convicted-offender backlog includes as many as 300,000
unanalyzed DNA samples from offenders convicted of crimes,
with more than 500,000 samples yet to be taken.
While the number of DNA samples has grown, the ability
of crime labs to analyze those samples has not kept pace.
A number of factors contribute to the inability of labs
to accept and process casework samples in a timely fashion.
For one thing, most State and local crime labs lack sufficient
numbers of trained forensic scientists and the funds to
hire more staff. Even where funds are available, there
is an insufficient pool of qualified forensic scientists
to hire. In addition, many State and local crime labs
lack the resources and lab space necessary to obtain and
use state-of-the-art automated equipment and software
that would speed up DNA analyses.
To address this problem, NIJ, at the direction of the
Attorney General, convened a working group of Federal,
State, and local criminal justice and forensic science
experts to study the problem and submit recommendations
on how to eliminate the backlog and build the Nation’s
capacity to routinely use DNA as an investigative tool.
The recommendations include:
- Improve the DNA analysis capacity of public crime laboratories.
- Provide financial assistance to State and local crime
labs to help eliminate casework backlogs.
- Develop funding to eliminate convicted-offender database
backlogs and encourage aggressive programs to collect
owed samples from convicted offenders.
- Support training and education for forensic scientists
to increase the pool of available DNA analysts.
- Provide training and education on the proper collection,
preservation, and use of forensic DNA evidence to police
officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, victim
service providers, medical personnel, and other criminal
- Support the development of improved DNA technologies,
set up demonstration projects to encourage the increased
use of DNA testing, and create a national forensic science
commission to help ensure that the latest DNA and other
forensic technologies are used to the maximum extent by
criminal justice systems.
Subsequently, Congress passed a 5-year, $1-billion Presidential
Initiative, “Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology,”
and in October 2004 passed the “Justice for All
Act of 2004.” The Act:
- Establishes enforceable rights for
victims of crimes.
- Enhances DNA collection and analysis
- Provides for postconviction DNA testing.
- Authorizes grants to improve the
quality of representation in State capital cases.
Learn more at http://www.DNA.gov.
Not an Innocent Crime
The benefits stem from the recognition that property offenders—burglars,
in particular—pose a significant threat not just to
those whose property they steal, but to the community at
large. Bud Stuver, who heads the DNA Testing Program at
the Miami-Dade County Police Department, notes that burglary
is not the “innocent crime” that some people
assume it to be. For one thing, its victims suffer psychological
trauma not measurable in monetary terms. For another the
economic losses these victims experience are significant.
On top of that, burglary—despite its prevalence—has
the lowest clearance rate of any Index crime.
But the potential that burglars will commit more serious,
violent crimes is perhaps the greatest danger posed by property
crime offenders. Individuals who commit property crimes
have a higher recidivism rate than those who commit other
types of offenses, and their demonstrated potential to engage
in more serious, violent behavior makes analyzing DNA evidence
from property crimes not just an option, but a matter of
W. Mark Dale, former crime lab director at the New York
City Police Department and now the director of the Northeast
Regional Forensic Institute at the University of Albany,
State University of New York, reports that in his experience,
when no-suspect DNA from a murder scene is checked against
CODIS—a database that allows Federal, State, and local
crime labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles—it
often yields a match with the DNA of a burglar. (See
“What Is CODIS?”)
A review of New York’s first 1,000 hits showed that
the vast majority were linked to crimes like homicide and
rape, but of these, 82 percent of the offenders were already
in the databank as a result of a prior conviction for a
“lesser” crime such as burglary or drugs.
In a Florida study, 52 percent of database hits against
murder and sexual assault cases matched individuals who
had prior convictions for burglary, notes Coffman.
WHAT IS CODIS?
The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is an electronic
database of DNA profiles administered through the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. The system lets Federal, State,
and local crime labs share and compare DNA profiles. Through
CODIS, investigators match DNA from crime scenes with
convicted offenders and with other crime scenes using
computer software, just as fingerprints are matched through
automated fingerprint identification systems.
CODIS uses two indexes: (1) the Convicted Offender Index,
which contains profiles of convicted offenders, and (2)
the Forensic Index, which contains profiles from crime
The real strength of CODIS lies in solving cases that
have no suspects. If DNA evidence entered into CODIS matches
someone in the offender index, a warrant can be obtained
authorizing the collection of a sample from that offender
to confirm the match. If the offender’s DNA is in
the forensic index, the system allows investigators—even
in different jurisdictions—to exchange information
about their respective cases.
Worth What You Pay for It
Despite its proven value, expanding DNA analysis to property
crimes is costly. The price tag depends on factors such
as the fees paid to outside vendors for analysis, the type
of testing needed, the number of samples tested per case,
and the cost to have police collect biological evidence
at property crime scenes and pursue investigative leads
generated by CODIS.
The danger that property crime offenders will commit more
serious crimes has convinced many that funding a larger
database to include DNA from property crimes is money well
spent. Bud Stuver looks at affordability from the perspective
of the costs to the justice system as a whole. “It
is much more expeditious to employ DNA testing than to pay
investigators [to track down leads],” he observes.
In the same way, he notes, once a DNA result is in hand,
it can substantially shorten what can be lengthy and costly
court proceedings. Offenders may be more likely to plead
guilty if they know the government’s case-in-chief
contains DNA evidence linking them to the crime.
NIJ Funding Made It Possible
With NIJ support, three crime labs were able to overcome
the cost issue and send their no-suspect DNA samples to
outside vendors for analysis. The good news was not just
that the analyses yielded a large number of hits and helped
clear the backlog of samples—it was also the surprisingly
high proportion of hits against burglaries and the links
discovered among these crimes.
In New York, for example, biological evidence from 201
burglaries yielded 86 “CODIS-acceptable” profiles.
On the basis of these numbers, the lab has been able to
develop several pattern burglaries from these profiles.
One profile uncovered a five-burglary serial offender. Most
of New York’s DNA profiles resulted in forensic hits
to multiple unsolved cases. A few were linked to more serious,
violent crimes such as sexual assault and robbery. More
than three dozen burglary profiles have been linked through
CODIS to other unsolved cases; more than 30 of the newly
analyzed cases were matched through CODIS to convicted offenders
and are under investigation.
Links among crimes are coming to light in two other sites.
DNA in bloodstains collected at the scene of four household
burglaries in Miami-Dade linked all four to the same offender,
who turned out to have been previously convicted of another
burglary. DNA evidence collected in Palm Beach also linked
three different vehicle burglaries in which no suspect had
been identified, and ultimately identified the perpetrator.
He, too, turned out to be a previously convicted burglar.
Overall, in Miami-Dade, 526 CODIS-acceptable profiles taken
from unsolved cases produced 271 hits; in Palm Beach, 229
profiles produced 91 hits. Of the 362 samples matched through
CODIS, more than half (56 percent) came from evidence collected
at burglary scenes.
The success of these programs in using DNA evidence from
property crimes to solve other cases is an example for other
jurisdictions to emulate. Encouraging police officers to
recognize and collect biological samples at property crime
scenes is a major step in this direction, one already implemented
by Miami-Dade County. Stuver, who is providing this training,
works hard to convince officers that retrieving such evidence
“is worth the time and effort.”
ENGLAND’S USE OF DNA TO SOLVE PROPERTY CRIMES
YIELDS GREAT SUCCESS
In 1995, England was propelled to the forefront of innovation
in the use of DNA when it unveiled its National DNA Database
(NDNAD). A progression of database laws in England and
Wales has given law enforcement the right to collect samples
and profile individuals arrested for, or suspected of,
involvement in a crime—and not just violent crimes.
Officials found that the database’s usefulness as
an investigative tool increased when it was expanded to
include DNA from nonviolent crimes such as burglary, car
theft, and vandalism. Success also came from the short
turnaround time from sample collection to DNA profiling.
Biological samples from suspects and arrestees are typically
analyzed within 5 days; crime scene analysis takes about
Work Still to Be Done
But a hit doesn’t mean the case is cleared—arrest,
prosecution, and conviction must follow. NIJ is working
with the sites to come up with ways to move beyond hits
to successfully prosecuting offenders. This effort requires
a balancing of resources among the law enforcement officers
who collect the DNA evidence, the forensic specialists who
analyze the samples, and the detectives who make arrests
based on CODIS hits. Enhancing the ability of jurisdictions
to generate CODIS-acceptable samples and ensuring that investigators
use that evidence to build cases against offenders will
go a long way toward maximizing the potential of DNA as
a crime-solving tool.
- Lovrich, N.P., et al., National Forensic DNA Study
Report, final report submitted to NIJ, 2003:
13 (NCJ 203970). Available at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/203970.pdf.
- Today, every State has a DNA database statute that allows
collection of DNA from specified offenders. All 50 States
require DNA from sex offenders and murderers, and 46 States
require DNA from all violent felony convictions (including
assault and battery and robbery). Over the past several
years, a growing number of States have been expanding their
databases to include nonviolent felony convictions; 45 States
require DNA from burglary convictions, 36 States require
DNA from certain drug convictions, and 31 States require
DNA from all felony convictions. (These figures are current
through July 2003.) National Forensic DNA Study Report,
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, 2003: 37.
- Source: Florida Department of Law Enforcement State DNA
Database Statistics, Tallahassee, Florida.
- The three sites were among several that received grants
to reduce their DNA backlog. Nationwide, the number of cases
that possibly have biological evidence not yet sent by local
law enforcement agencies to crime labs or backlogged at
the labs is more than one half million (542,700). National
Forensic DNA Study Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2003: 3.
- The economic loss for persons who were crime victims totaled
$15.6 million in 2002; for property crime victims, it was
$14.2 million (National Crime Victimization Survey,
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2002: Table 82).
- Crime in the United States 2002: Uniform Crime Reports,
Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003: 221,
223. Burglary had the lowest clearance rate of any Index
- Source: http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/forensic/dnabrochure.htm
(retrieved from the World Wide Web on April 12, 2005).
- Source: Florida Department of Law Enforcement State DNA
Database Statistics, Tallahassee, Florida.
- CODIS-acceptable profiles are those that meet the standards
established by the National DNA Index System (NDIS). NDIS,
the single, central repository of DNA records that is used
to generate investigative leads, promulgates standards that
ensure the reliability and compatibility of DNA profiles
submitted by State and local law enforcement agencies. NDIS
is distinct from the State DNA Index Systems (SDIS), which
produce the majority of DNA hits.