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Dec05

DNA Database Ruling: A Victory for Liberty

DNA Database

Yesterday’s news about the DNA database was most welcome to those of us concerned about the growing infringement of civil liberties here in the UK.

In one of the most decisive rulings to ever come out of the European Court of Human Rights’ (a unanimous ruling by 17 judges), the current policy of the Home Office to store DNA data of over 800,000 innocent citizens has effectively been shown to be what it is; a breach of civil liberties, which cannot be reasonably tolerated in a democratic society.

The Home Office had previously argued that the process of retaining the DNA data for arrested individuals was necessary on the flimsy pretext that someone arrested but not charged or convicted of one crime, may very well be guilty of another.

But common sense says that this approach taken to it’s logical conclusion, would plunge us all into the sort of police-state world that George Orwell wrote about over half a century ago.

The Home Office claims that there have been occasions, where the DNA database has proven useful in identifying the culprit of a serious crime, who had no previous criminal convictions and this assertion formed the basis of their justification for the approach.

But as the Home Office has failed to make public, accurate statistics regarding these assertions, it is understandably difficult to validate these claims. And since even the European Court of Human Rights dismissed this, it would appear that it was a very flimsy claim indeed.

My cynical nature makes me believe that there are two agendas at work here, both of which are largely unrelated to the concept of justice; the first is that the current procedure effectively provides the Home Office with a method of bringing in a national ID database by the back door. The second is that obtaining fingerprint and DNA information from individuals who have merely been arrested instead of charged and/or convicted makes things easier for a few box-ticking coppers and Crown Prosecution Service staff to remember.

But a couple of relatively small changes in Police procedure could perhaps help the Home Office find a balance between the need to preserve civil liberties and the legitimate need to maximise the effectiveness of the DNA database.

The first and most significant change should be made to the procedural order. If an individual is arrested, they should not be obliged to supply DNA material until they are formally charged. If charges are dropped (especially for lack of evidence) the DNA information should be immediately deleted from the database.

And if the CPS fails to bring a successful prosecution against the accused, the judge should have the power to either instruct the Home Office to delete the DNA information or alternatively retain the DNA information for a specified period of time, if he or she feels that the nature of the alleged offense warrants it. This would provide a “retention window” for the most serious criminal cases such as terrorism, sexual assault, hate crime, rape, murder, serious organised crime and pedophilia.

A maximum statute of perhaps 15 years could be introduced with judges being given discretionary powers to impose a retention window in line with the seriousness of the charge, the previous criminal record (if any) of the accused and the evidence presented in trial. The CPS and the Home Office would have the right of appeal if they could demonstrate that the retention window chosen by the courts was not sufficient.

Finally, all those with current criminal convictions should be obliged to provide DNA for the database if they have not already done so. Parolees should report to their local police station and convicts still doing time could be processed en-mass within the confines of their prison by mobile forensic teams, in much the same way as the rest of us give blood.

The end result of all this would be that we might actually end up with a DNA database that is fit for purpose and a system that is all about justice.

And who knows…maybe the Home Office will follow.

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