European Court Says Police Can't Keep DNA Samples from Innocent People

By Eliza Strickland | December 4, 2008 1:51 pm

DNA sampleIn a landmark court case, a European court has ruled that law enforcement agencies can’t keep DNA samples from people who have never been convicted of a crime. In the unanimous judgment, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that keeping the samples was in violation of people’s right to a private life, a protection under the Human Rights Convention [AP].

Its decision, which is binding on all 46 members of the Council of Europe, will have an immediate impact on around 850,000 innocent people whose genetic profiles are stored on the police DNA database in England and Wales [The Economist]. In those parts of the United Kingdom, the police collect a DNA sample from anyone arrested on a “recordable” offense, a category that includes everything from murder to “fraudulently evading bingo duty.” That sample is stored for the rest of the person’s life, even if they’re never convicted of the crime they were arrested for. If the U.K. doesn’t appeal the new ruling, the English and Welsh police will have to immediately destroy the genetic profiles of everyone without a criminal record.

The case began with an English man who was arrested for harassing his partner (the charges were later dropped) and with a teenage boy who was a juvenile when he was arrested for robbery (he was acquitted). Both asked that their DNA profiles be destroyed and both were denied; they then spent seven years fighting the case through the court system. According to court documents, the pair said they were worried “about possible current and future uses of those data. They further contend that the retention casts suspicion on people who have been acquitted or discharged of crimes and that they should be treated in the same way as the rest of the unconvicted population” [Telegraph].

U.K. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was disappointed in the latest court ruling, and said the existing law will remain in place while ministers consider the judgment. “DNA and fingerprinting is vital to the fight against crime, providing the police with more than 3,500 matches a month,” Ms Smith said [Sky News]. Britain’s DNA database is thought to be the largest in the world; most European governments keep DNA samples of only the most dangerous criminals. In the United States, federal and state laws vary: The FBI takes samples from arrested suspects but will destroy those records, on request, if the suspect isn’t convicted of a crime. Among the states, only California allows the police to store DNA profiles of people without criminal records.

Related Content:
80beats: For the Greater Good, Ten Pioneers Will Post Their Genomes on the Internet
80beats: NIH Yanks Genetic Databases From the Web, Citing Privacy Worries
Discoblog: DNA Cops Crack Down on Flower Theft and Other High Crimes
Discoblog: Criminals, Beware: Your Name Might Be in Your DNA
DISCOVER: Q & A with Eric Juengst—discusses the FBI’s genetic database

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Larian LeQuella

    While I would hate for unscrupulous agencies to get a hold of DNA records (I’m thinking Health Insurance companies and the like 😉 ), I can actually see a benefit to people having their DNA on record somewhere. At the very least to aid in identifying your corpse after an accident or whatnot. There are aspects outside the Criminal Justice system where having this information could actually help.

    Although, as a member of the military, I guess my expectations to privacy are a lot lower than the average citizen. 😉

  • Eliza Strickland

    It’s interesting — one of the previous posts that I linked to deals with a scientific campaign to get the genomes of 100,000 people sequenced and posted online. The U.S. scientists leading the crusade believe in radical, genetic transparency.

    I wonder if Europe and the U.S. will diverge on genetic privacy laws, the way they have on genetically modified food regulations?

  • chilton

    although I think dna would be a good crime fighting tool, I don’t think that anyone sould have theirs stored for any length of time by somone else unless they are in fact convicted criminals. if you were suspect in a murder or another similarly violent crime then I would think it to be fair to have to submit upon request, but the default should be that it is destroyed after use, unless orders from a court pertaining to said persons dna use request otherwise.

    and everyone has to agree that DNA can be used to publicize you life like you would never imagine.
    imagine getting a letter in the mail that said you were getting fined the maximum amount for littering because the police found a pop bottle on the ground and for whatever reason decided to waste the time and money looking for a dna sample and yours came up, no winesses to the “crime” except a few molecules which don’t tell the story about how the pop bottle flew out of the garbage truck as it drove by and not by you maliciously throwing it out your car window
    scares me to hell

  • Brian

    My opinion, I think the European Court of Human Rights court decision is exactly right. If you aren’t in the database then that database cannot be used as a weapon or fishing expedition against the innocent. Furthermore, any large database becomes attractive for purposes other than what it was originally created for.

    I still remember a municipal manager, years ago, started selling names and addresses from the municipal property tax rolls, for commercial marketing purposes. They absolutely thought they did nothing wrong, until the citizens found out about it. To the manager it was “innovative” and a “new revenue stream”. The companies purchasing that information were interested because, as householders, the names on the list presumably had money and could be effectively marketed to.

    Of course once this activity became public there was a scandal and the information sales were completely stopped. To the housing owners it was a breach of trust and an unsanctioned use of private information.

  • Yetta Depolito

    Hey, like, is that this a custom theme? can you post where you got it?, continue the writing.

  • Dia Wiktor

    Music started playing anytime I opened this web site, so annoying!


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