Science

britain dna database
AP Photo/Sean Dempsey,WPA pool
In a 1999 photo, Britain's former Prime
Minister Tony Blair has a
DNA swab
taken as
promotion for the national DNA
database.

Britain Drops Proposal to Keep Innocent in DNA Database as US Database Grows

October 19, 2009 07:30 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
In many U.S. states, the DNA of those arrested but not convicted is held indefinitely. In Britain, however, the Home Office dropped a DNA database proposal due to strong public opposition and a European court ruling.

In Britain, DNA Database Timeline On Hold, for Now

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Although the Home Office of Britain has dropped its proposal to keep the DNA records of anyone arrested for six to 12 years, the actual timeline for keeping those records remains unknown.

Since 1995, a national database has been used to record the DNA of anyone convicted of a crime in the U.K. In 2001, some areas began recording the DNA of anyone suspected of a crime, including those acquitted. A few years later, police began collecting DNA after every arrest. In December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found that indefinitely keeping the DNA data of those not convicted of a crime was a violation of human rights.

The database currently remains intact, with no word yet on how or if the data from those not convicted will be removed.

Growth of DNA Databases in US and Other Countries Draws Privacy, Discrimination Concerns

Ben McDevitt, the man in charge of Australia’s national DNA database, would like to expand the database by collecting DNA samples from people convicted of any crime, and for those charged with serious crimes, but not convicted. 

In the U.S., the FBI recently began taking DNA samples from people held for immigration reasons. As far as the collection and retention of DNA data in the U.S. goes, policies and procedures vary by state. The state of California is now facing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union regarding its voter-approved law, proposition 69, which allows police to take a sample of DNA from anyone arrested for a felony. The sample is stored in a database regardless of whether the person is convicted. ACLU representatives say that the state should come up with a warrant to collect the DNA information, as it constitutes invasion of a person’s body.

California law also allows police to engage in “familial searching,” which is “when a genetic sample does not directly match another, so authorities start investigating people with closely matched DNA in hopes of finding leads to the perpetrator.”

The U.S. also has a national DNA database, CODIS, in which it retains information gathered from crime scenes as well as from individuals. CODIS contains more than 5 million DNA profiles.

During the early years of DNA collection, DNA was only collected from individuals convicted of crimes that were prone to repeat offense, such as sexual crimes. These days, all but six states collect DNA from convicted felons, more than half of states collect DNA from underage offenders and almost 40 collect DNA after conviction of a misdemeanor.

During the Council for Responsible Genetics Forum on Racial Justice Impacts of Forensic DNA Databanks, held in New York in June of 2008, Harry G. Levine, Jon B. Gettman, Craig Reinarman and Deborah Peterson Small raised concerns about how expanding the collection method of DNA could result in an unjust racial disparity. Using New York City as an example, Levine, Gettman, Reinarman and Peterson showed that there is a disproportionately high number of misdemeanor and drug arrests in the young black and latino male population, and that including DNA from those arrests in a national database could put those individuals at a greater risk of false accusation or conviction of a crime. 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Using DNA in Crime Fighting

DNA testing was first used in the U.S. court system in the late 1980s. Since then, DNA evidence has often received media attention for proving the innocence of those previously convicted of a crime, as was the case in 1989 for David Vasquez, who had served 35 years for a crime DNA evidence proved he did not commit.

The New York-based Innocence Project advocates for DNA testing to determine the guilt or innocence of inmates; a nearly even percentage of convicts are found innocent or guilty using the testing.

But DNA evidence is not a foolproof system. Last spring, authorities in Germany were embarrassed when they found that DNA evidence “collected” at more than 40 crime scenes may have actually belonged to a worker at the facility where the evidence was stored. Rather than implicating the same individual in all 40 crimes, as police had thought, the find indicated that the evidence had been contaminated at the warehouse.

A report on the state of U.S. crime labs last year by the National Academy of Science found that the labs were lacking in a uniform standard of operation and procedure, and that the labs were often under pressure from police departments or prosecution to make certain findings. Evidence such as bite marks, hair and tool marks were thought to be too unreliable under examination for use in court. DNA evidence, however, was thought to be the one type of evidence reliable enough to form a concrete match with a person.
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