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NORMAL — Don't expect a new TV series named, “CSI: ISU,” but three Illinois State University professors are looking into the feasibility of a device to bring technology from the lab to the crime scene.

The device, called a mass spectrometer, can analyze evidence for the presence of certain chemicals.

Through a previous grant, ISU associate professor of analytical chemistry Christopher Mulligan developed a portable version of the device.

With the latest, nearly $300,000 two-year grant from the National Institutes of Justice, Mulligan and two other faculty members will research the reliability, functionality, cost-effectiveness and legal implications of the device.

Mulligan said the device could be in the field within 5 to 10 years, putting ISU in the forefront of new developments.

“That's exciting,” he said, but it's also why the research team has “a responsibility to be sure we're not selling snake oil.”

Being able to take a functional mass spectrometer into the field would speed up the time it takes to get results and save resources used to ship and store evidence at a lap, Mulligan explained.

But will the savings from such changes as not shipping evidence to a lab balance out the cost of a device that costs up to $100,000? And will evidence identified by the device be admissible in court?

That's where Mulligan's partners in the project come in.

Jamie Wieland, associate professor of technology, has a background in statistics and probability modeling. She will be researching how the approach can save time and money and analyze the cost versus the benefits.

“We assume it might be cost effective at the federal level,” but the answer is less clear at the state or local level, Wieland said.

Because using the device in the field will provide almost immediate results, Wieland said, “potentially, having that real-time information can change the course of an investigation.”

Michael Gizzi, associate professor of criminal justice studies, will study court rulings to determine potential legal obstacles related to what constitutes a “search” under the Fourth Amendment and the necessity of probable cause or a warrant before the portable device could be used.

For example, could the device be used in a traffic stop to check a driver's license for drug residue?

A line of cases involving drug-sniffing dogs says “it's only a sniff, not a search,” Gizzi said. But, he noted, another U.S. Supreme Court case threw out evidence obtained by using a thermal imager to detect heat from lamps used in a marijuana-growing operation.

“It depends on which route the court takes,” said Gizzi, whose book, “The Fourth Amendment in Flux” is coming out this spring. “I can't tell you how they're going to decide, but I can make an intelligent hypothesis.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, mass spectrometers — much like early computers —  filled an entire room, Mulligan said. Although they have become smaller, “typically, they're still lab-confined,” he said.

Mulligan already has shown his smaller, portable device works in the lab. The next step is to take it out of the lab and “see what happens in the field,” he said.

The idea is to set up scenes similar to what criminal investigators would find.

“The more we can demonstrate it in authentic scenarios, the more we can demonstrate the capabilities of this instrument,” Mulligan said. “There are probably new capabilities that we haven't even thought of.”

Forensic labs across the country are backlogged and the problem keeps increasing, noted Wieland. By moving analysis from the lab to the field, Wieland asks, "could we possibly improve the situation and make a dent in that backlog?"

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota


Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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