Categorized | Case Law, Civil Liberties

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

Of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the United Kingdom (excluding Scotland) is the only one to have an all-encompassing scheme for DNA and fingerprint retention. Under s.64 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 the police can retain bodily samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints from anyone arrested for a recordable offence, whether or not they are charged, prosecuted or convicted.

This position was challenged at the European Court of Human Rights last year in a landmark case*. The circumstances of the applicants in S and Marper v UK were as follows. Mr S. was arrested on 19 January 2001 at the age of eleven and charged with attempted robbery. His fingerprints and DNA samples were taken. He was acquitted on 14 June 2001. The second applicant, Mr Michael Marper, was arrested on 13 March 2001 and charged with harassment of his partner. His fingerprints and DNA samples were taken. On 11 June 2001, the Crown Prosecution Service served a notice of discontinuance on the applicant’s solicitors, and on 14 June the case was formally discontinued. The applicants complained under Articles 8 and 14 of the Human Rights Convention that the authorities had continued to retain their fingerprints and cellular samples and DNA profiles after the criminal proceedings against them had ended with an acquittal or had been discontinued. In a far reaching judgment, delivered on 4 December 2008, the Court’s Grand Chamber of 17 judges found that the retention of DNA profiles, cellular samples and fingerprints of the applicants was disproportionate and therefore unjustified under article 8 of the Convention. It declared that the current legal framework for the DNA database, with its “blanket and indiscriminate” powers to retain samples, amounted to a violation of fundamental rights. The Court countered the government’s argument that, as a pioneer in new techniques, it should be given a greater margin of discretion by stating, in para 112 of the judgement, “The Court considers that any State claiming a pioneer role in the development of new technologies bears special responsibility for striking the right balance…” The onus was placed on the government to put forward a scheme for retention that fulfils the basic requirements for proportionality, and the Court reminded the government to take greater account of individual rights when developing the law.

The Home Office has today published its proposals, which fall far short of the destruction of all DNA profiles, samples and fingerprints of 850,000 innocent people kept on the DNA database sought by human rights groups and opposition politicians. Instead they propose to retain profiles of those arrested but not convicted of serious violent or sexual crimes for 12 years; retain profiles of those arrested but not convicted of all other crimes for six years; retain profiles of young people arrested but not convicted or convicted for less serious offences as a teenager until they turn 18; and keep fingerprints for those arrested but not convicted of serious violent or sexual crimes for 12 years, and six years for all other crimes. The Court had sought a response that would not simply be to cite crime prevention as a generality, but, launching a public consultation on the subject, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said “It is crucial that we do everything we can to protect the public by preventing crime and bringing offenders to justice. The DNA database plays a vital role in helping us do that and will help ensure that a great many criminals are behind bars where they belong… These new proposals will ensure that the right people are on it, as well as considering where people should come off.”

For full details of the public consultation ‘Keeping the right people on the DNA database’ go to http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/cons-2009-dna-database/

* Grand Chamber; Case of S. and Marper v. The United Kingdom (Applications nos. 30562/04 and 30566/04); Judgement: Strasbourg, 4 December 2008.database,

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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