Bringing the Lab to the Crime Scene
News Mar 21, 2016
When Illinois State Chemistry Professor Christopher Mulligan hears someone say it’ll be a week or two before test results come back from some faraway laboratory, unlike most people, he goes beyond just asking the hard question, “Why?”
Finding the answer to the “why” of something, particularly as it pertains to technology used in crime scene investigations, has led him to hunker down in the Science Laboratory Building to find some answers.
“Why can’t you effectively take the crime lab with you to the crime scene?” Mulligan asked. “Can we develop a tool for testing evidence at the scene?”
Mulligan has been happily wrestling with a project for the last several years that could answer those questions and make a major impact on the way crime scenes are investigated.
In his lab, Mulligan has managed to miniaturize an existing instrument known as the mass spectrometer. This device could be used by law enforcement investigators to detect evidence, for example, by swabbing a table top or a suspect’s hand looking for traces of cocaine or an explosive too small to be seen by the unaided eye.
“Traditionally, mass spectrometers were the size of rooms,” Mulligan said. “Miniaturization of these instruments has had a similar lineage to computers—once bulky and large, but now miniaturized with much more performance and capabilities.”
Mulligan’s mass spectrometer is about the size of a small copier and weighs less than 100 pounds. He thinks the device could easily become part of the standard equipment carried aboard a crime scene van. This technology could speed up the process of gathering credible evidence and be used by officers in the field.
“Normally mass spectrometers are used by scientists who are extensively trained in analytical chemistry,” he said. “Part of our work is to take a complicated technology and make it simple enough to be used by nontechnical operators.”
Mulligan is working with two other Illinois State professors—Michael Gizzi, of the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, and Jamie Wieland, of the Department of Technology—to develop the device and bring it to market.
“Simplistically, I am determining what the instrument can do,” Mulligan said. “Dr. Gizzi is determining whether what we can do is legal, and Dr. Wieland is determining whether it is affordable and financially reasonable.”
The National Institute of Justice—the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice—has awarded two grants and nearly $700,000 in funding for Mulligan’s project. The second grant, awarded last year, supports the work of all three professors.
Gizzi’s role is to ensure that Mulligan’s technology is used to gather evidence in such a way that passes constitutional muster, specifically in regard to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
The legal implications of the device apply only to criminal investigations before an arrest or before there is probable cause to make an arrest, Gizzi said.
“Once someone is arrested, the technology is merely a forensic tool to collect evidence from a crime scene,” he said. “The Fourth Amendment ceases to be an issue, and instead it is just questions about the admissibility of scientific evidence in court.”
Mulligan’s mass spectrometer could save overstretched forensic labs time and money, Wieland said.
“Forensic labs are notoriously understaffed,” she said. “From an operations standpoint, if you streamline the front end of the forensic process enough, you wouldn’t have to send everything back to the lab for testing. This is important, as ultimately, it’s taxpayers’ dollars that pay for forensic investigations.”
Wieland is there to determine—by utilizing her expertise in engineering, operations management, applied statistics, and simulation—whether this technology, which could cost about $100,000 per unit, is cost-effective overall.
Wieland compared trying to make this new technology attractive to a wider market to what’s been done previously with technologies like full body scanners for airline passenger screening and traffic enforcement cameras.
The device’s selling points are that it is portable, simple, fast, and accurate. Mulligan designed his version of the mass spectrometer to be “ruggedized” in terms of operation, or ready for use in a harsh environment.
Mulligan described how it works. First, the area where evidence might be present is swabbed. The swab is just a slip of paper, about the size of something you’d pull out of a fortune cookie, except one end comes to a point. That pointed tip is where the sample of chemical or residue is applied and then read by the mass spectrometer.
The mass part of the technology refers to weighing—for the purpose of identifying—a given sample. The spectrometer, the actual instrument, is a box-shaped apparatus where the analysis and identification of the samples occur.
The swab is attached to the mass spectrometer via a metal clasp, which holds the pointed tip in place as solvent is applied to the swab to act as a conductor of electricity. When high voltage hits the swab, the solvent and voltage cause the chemical residue to be charged and migrate off of the swab where it can be sampled and identified by the mass spectrometer.
Mulligan has used his portable technology to test actual evidence provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration, once agents were finished with their own analysis. This type of work bolsters his ongoing goal of doing “authentic experiments.”
Mulligan said getting an accurate reading one time was not particularly significant, but repeating that reading accurately many times over was the goal: “If it reads cocaine on a swab one time, will it read cocaine on a swab 2,000 times? Reliability is key when it comes to forensic technologies.”
Mulligan described this phase of the project as exciting but also crucial in determining if the technology is suitable to move forward into serious consideration for adoption.
Gizzi is investigating the legal implications of the technology.
“While the technology itself enables police to potentially gather significant evidence, there are legal issues that need to be considered,” Gizzi said. “For example, if someone’s property is swabbed without a warrant or probable cause, that would be a search.”
Gizzi said there are potential legal hurdles related to the admissibility of evidence gathered by the device before an arrest is made. Courts have ruled that specialized technology that is not in general public use, like this device, enhances law enforcement’s senses and could be considered a search.
Similarly, Gizzi said, another case held that the use of a GPS surveillance device was considered to be an intrusion constitutionally.
The flip side is that the courts could take the view that mass spectrometers are no different than highly trained police dogs that find illegal drugs.
“The narcotics dog is specially trained to only detect contraband,” Gizzi said. “And the court has ruled that no one has an expectation of privacy in possessing contraband. And this technology can be adapted to only detect contraband at a much higher rate of accuracy than a dog.”
Gizzi credited Mulligan for inviting colleagues from across campus to be part of such a high-profile, cutting-edge project. Mulligan is aware of how essential that collaboration is to the success of his work.
“I am particularly proud that this project has been moved forward by the hard work of undergraduate and master’s level graduate students here at ISU Chemistry,” Mulligan said. “The rigor and scope of a project like this are typically relegated to large doctoral programs, which is a testament to the quality of our students and the richness of our research experiences.”