Guilty, until proven guilty

2:31 pm - May 9th 2009

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Post by: Denny
In December last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the current legal framework for the UK DNA database was a violation of fundamental rights. The judges said they had been “struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature” of the government’s powers to take and keep DNA samples from anyone arrested (including those who are subsequently released without charge, or found not guilty in court).

This ruling does not seem to have concerned our government a great deal.

It has taken them five months to come up with any response at all, and now that it is here it borders on contempt towards the court’s December ruling. Our government proposes that instead of holding the DNA details of the innocent forever it will instead, only hold them for up to 12 years, as they announced this week.

I don’t think there is a single person in the country who could read that December ruling and believe that our government has done anywhere near enough to address the very strongly-worded concerns expressed by the court.

Instead of dealing with the fundamental issue of the inappropriateness of retaining any information about the innocent, they are instead fiddling with details such as assigning different legal values to innocence of a major crime and innocence of a minor crime – as if ‘innocent’ did not always mean ‘innocent’. This is a blatant and infuriating attempt to dodge the real issues that were raised and hide them under a blanket of irrelevant distractions.

Our police should not be storing the details of innocent people and using these as their first port of call when investigating new crimes. Being a suspect in a previous investigation does not make you guilty. Being arrested and later released does not make you guilty. Being found Not Guilty by a court does not (surprise surprise!) make you guilty. If these things made you guilty, we wouldn’t need a DNA database, nor much of a police force – the government could just round up anyone that they thought looked a bit dodgy and have them shot in the street.

Still, perhaps that will be the subject of next week’s Home Office consultation – A Proposal To Reduce Policing Costs By Rounding Up And Shooting People We Don’t Like The Look Of. At this point I’d only be mildly surprised.

Cross-posted Police State UK

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Reader comments

Sent to my MP on Friday (via TheyWorkforYou):

Dear Diana Johnson,

I am writing to you with respect to the National Police DNA Database
and the recent judgement by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

As I understand it, though the current arrangements have been struck
down as being basically illiberal and an affront to a person’s
democratic and human rights – the current Home Secretary is proposing
to “limit” the time DNA can be held to 6 or 12 years depending on the
severity of the offence for which you were charged – but not
necessarily convicted of.

Storing the DNA of those who have been convicted of NO offence is a
disgrace and serves no purpose other than pandering to the Daily Mail
lobby. If you have been found not guilty by a jury of your peers that
is an end to the matter. You are free and the state should have no right to
store your bio-informatics.

You will have to forgive me, but sanity does not seem to prevail at New
Labour’s Home Office – this seems like a huge own goal. The ECHR has
issued a damning verdict on the legal status of the database and yet
the Government refuses to act in accordance with (or the spirit of) the
judgement laid down. I find this deeply offensive as a citizen
of this once democratic country.

As my elected representative, I would be grateful for your thoughts on
this matter and for an indication of whether you would be prepared to
support the Government when it brings forward this legislation.

Yours sincerely, Daniel

What surprises me a bit more is that people actually believe that this will change with a Tory government.

I think you skipped a few of the important steps between having DNA on file and being found guilty.

Tom @3:

The problem is that innocent people are being kept on the database for an arbitrary period of years.

The other problem is that a forensic DNA match is in very nearly all non-TV instances a partial. I.e. it could match more than one person in a population of 60 million. Put those two things together and it adds up to a problem.

Or, you could look at it the other way around. Do you trust the government to only let the cops look at your records? [1] Or are we going to find council employees using Terrorism legislation and DNA matching to identify who stuck gum under the pews at St. Botolphs?

[1] Which begs the question do you trust the police?

The main question, should you be ultimately brought to court for a crime because you sneezed on a person later that day murdered *JUST* because you were wrongfully arrested for an earlier crime and released?

Lee Griffin: AOL!

That was pretty much what I was trying to say, but I failed on succinctness. I often do.

7. the a&e charge nurse

Holding DNA is not (of itself) synonymous with accusations of guilt.

In Lee’s scenario an innocent person might end up doing jail time because of a sneeze. Perhaps there is also an implied suggestion that we can never fully trust the authorities to manage this type of complex data, either ethically or competently.

On the other hand if a serial rapist, or potential murderer, is brought to book because of held DNA material then I think we have to think carefully before throwing the baby out with the bath water.

On balance the ECHR accepts there IS a case for retention of DNA – but criticises the UK because of timeframe and scope (i.e. DNA is held for too many people and for too long).

As I understand it the Home Secretary has already agreed to review arrangements and it might be that we end up with the kind of system that exists in Scotland which imposes a 3 year limit (in the main) on held DNA because most of the evidence suggests that re-offenders are likely to strike again within this sort of timescale.

@the a&e charge nurse

“Holding DNA is not (of itself) synonymous with accusations of guilt”

Well it is, otherwise why hang on to an innocent person’s DNA?

There are, as I understand it, 11 loci (or Short Tandem Repeats, STRs) of the DNA on the database of which one is a gender marker. The claim is that 2 unrelated individuals matching has a probability of about 1 in 1 billion.

Unless you have contaminated samples, of course. Which has happened:,0,7018280,full.story AND

“…if a serial rapist … is brought to book because of held DNA material…”

Whilst rapists become aware of DNA evidence, they destroy it by pouring acid into the victim. But, hey, at least we have a database!

And why is it the database holds details of 37% of black men but fewer than 10% of white men? Is a serial rapist more likely to be black? And who’s to say it won’t be used for nefarious purposes? For example, in early 2007, five civil servants were arrested for allegedly stealing DNA information from the database. And it costs some £60m a year to run. For catching other than serious crimes is this cost effective?

And given the (well massaged) figures from the government – which seem to bear little relation to innocent persons DNA – I’m not convinced about this database at all.

Nice post. Blatant spam warning: I’ve said something similar in the Journal of Medical Ethics‘ blog:

10. the a&e charge nurse

[8] France, Germany and the USA (amongst others) all retain DNA material – the principle is supported by the ECHR as well, so it seems to me that we are not arguing about the existance of such a database but how it should be used?

I have made no attempt to defend the existing system in the UK I merely highlighted that such material has proved successful in crime detection – according to this item:

DNA is successfully obtained at less than 1 per cent of crime scenes. But according to the Government, it is still having a significant impact, with the presence of DNA sharply increasing the chances of solving a crime. The crime detection rate last year was 26 per cent; where DNA evidence existed it rose to 40 per cent.

Recent advances in DNA technology have also allowed police to reopen their investigations into scores of unsolved “cold cases”. This work, Operation Advance, has so far led to 21 convictions with sentences handed out to date totalling more than 100 years as well as three life terms. Those who have been tracked down include James Lloyd, the South Yorkshire “shoe rapist”, who was convicted for sex attacks in the 1980s after his sister gave a DNA sample when she was stopped over a driving offence.

Police also argue that the database is a useful tool for ruling out the innocent from their inquiries.

As I mention above I am very pleased to hear that the present arrangements are being reviewed and I do not dispute that the iniquities highlighted in your post – obviously, these need to be addresses as soon as possible.

As I understand it, the vast majority of the crimes which the police statistics list as solved with the help of DNA evidence, are solved by matching a sample found at the scene with a sample taken from a suspect as part of the investigation.

The police themselves have said* that the number of times that a sample from the database has been used to solve a crime is relatively low, but ‘unfortunately’ they don’t break the figures down this way in their records, so they can’t give an accurate ratio or percentage for this particular point.

* I admit it, I read this somewhere a couple of months ago and I can’t find the reference now. If anybody finds it I’d really appreciate the link, thanks.

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