National Dna Database And Civil Liberties Criminology Essay

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Present in the cells of living organisms, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) provides a signature of genetic information, unique to each being. In recent years, scientists have developed the ability to establish DNA profiles from deposits found at crime scenes, such as blood, semen and hair. A National DNA Database (NDNAD) was then created to hold DNA profiles of potential suspects, thus enabling forensic evidence to be cross matched with genetic data of known offenders. However, the existence of the database has caused controversy, with significant concerns regarding State interference with human rights. In consideration of this contention, it is necessary to assess the effectiveness of the NDNAD, and identify how the accumulation of genetic data may violate fundamental civil liberties.

Covering England and Wales, the database was created in 1995. The aim was to eliminate suspects, as well as incriminate offenders. Initially, the entries on the NDNAD were only stored indefinitely if the suspect was convicted of an offence, otherwise the data was destroyed. Subsequently, the Government legislated to reform the categories and duration of database entries, increased its geographic coverage to include Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as relaxing consent regulations.

The corollary is a vast database; statistics from 2005 show profiles of 5.2% of the UK population, compared with 0.5% in the USA (Home Office figures). [1] This includes almost one million profiles of unconvicted individuals (Hansard), [2] which according to current legislation, will be held on the database indefinitely. Also of significance, is the disproportionate number of ethnic minority entries; 27% of the black population, including 77% of all young black males, and 9% of the Asian population have DNA profiles on the database, contrasted with only 6% of the white population (theyworkforyou.com). [3] 

It is important to appreciate that the NDNAD has become a eminent crime detection tool. The cross referencing of forensic evidence with the database provides the police with instant results. In instances where the police have insufficient information to resolve their case, the DNA profiling may provide a positive line of enquiry. Conversely, the lack of DNA matches may prevent wrongful convictions. The NDNAD has also been utilised to conclude previously unsolved crimes, by matching profiles with newly examined evidence, that was collected prior to the advances in science.

Other advantages of the NDNAD, are the significant financial and time efficiencies it creates. The value of which should be recognised, particularly in the cases of persistent violent offenders. The speed of DNA detection, has enabled the police to quickly apprehend dangerous offenders. This is illustrated by the 'Ipswich murders' (2006); where five prostitutes were killed in related attacks. Steve Wright, the murderer, was not originally a suspect in the case. Yet, he had been convicted of a minor theft in 2003, and was routinely added to the NDNAD, then DNA found on the murder victims corpses matched with Wright's profile. This resulted in a genuine lead for the police, and ultimately Wright's conviction.

Despite the proven benefits to public safety, there are risks in exploiting such sensitive data. If the police rely too heavily on DNA evidence, this could create miscarriages of justice; DNA found at the crime scene may have been passed on by a third party, or a suspect may have innocently visited the location before the incident took place.

Further, it is plausible that DNA might be deposited at the scene in an invidious attempt to incriminate an innocent person. Another area vulnerable to abuse is the digital database, perhaps from corrupt employees, computer hackers or administrative errors. Unfortunately such errors do occur, for instance in 2007, the child benefit records of twenty five million citizens were lost through the incompetence of state employees.

However, the most significant opposition to the NDNAD has arisen from concerns regarding the infringements of civil liberties. Many factions of society are disturbed

by the possible abuses of their personal data. There is also contention regarding racial discrimination; highlighting questionable policing practices that have resulted in such over-representation of ethnic minorities on the database. Additionally, fears have been raised, particularly by civil libertarians, such as Liberty and GeneWatch, that the State is eradicating fundamental freedoms in order to pursue its own agenda.

Imagine the entire population were micro-chipped, all personal data was listed on computerised systems and closed circuit television cameras existed everywhere; it is likely that the police would detect crime with rapid efficiency. Yet, this would be abhorrent to personal freedoms. Instead of privacy and other fundamental rights, the population would be the property of a totalitarian Government. It is the gradual shift towards this radical vision that is being resisted by NDNAD adversaries.

Again encroaching on human rights, is the matter of retaining DNA profiles of unconvicted individuals. This is discriminatory to innocent citizens, their data has been collected and despite being found innocent of committing any crime, their profiles are retained on the database. This compromises their personal liberty as they become potential suspects to the police and not free citizens.

Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a legal dispute between the state and discontented subjects. The case of S. and Marper v UK (2008), [4] heard in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), resulted in a judgement that 'the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the powers of retention of...DNA profiles...fails to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests;' [5] the British Government are unlawfully retaining personal information.

The Government announced their response to the ruling via the Crime and Security Bill (November 2009). Their proposals attempt to interpret the ECtHR ruling by differentiating between classifications of entries, as well as reducing the indefinite retention of unconvicted individuals' entries to six years. However, this has been met with criticism from many sources, including claims that the Government is seeking 'to interpret the Court's ruling as narrowly as possible.' [6] Particularly concerning, is the Government's rationale that those with unconvicted status' are likely to be re-arrested, and therefore a six year retention period on the NDNAD is essential. This is alarming, as the keystone of criminal justice is based on the presumption that citizens are 'innocent until proven guilty'. The starting point that unconvicted citizens have propensities to commit crime, is in conflict with the values intrinsic to criminal law.

The contributions of the NDNAD to increased public security are not in dispute. It is apparent that this vital scientific tool is aiding the police in securing convictions for past and present cases, and creating time and financial efficiencies for the police. However, on assessing the concerns regarding the infringement of civil liberties, it becomes evident that there is a substantial danger of miscarriages of justice occurring through abuse of the database, as well as errors relating to the physical forensic samples.

Yet, the preponderant anxiety relates to the abuse of human rights by the body politic. There is a tangible risk that the state will gradually overpower society, eroding fundamental liberties through legislation and concern for public security. Consequently the most appropriate position, as endorsed by numerous civil liberty organisations and the ECtHR, is to limit the classifications and retention of entries on the NDNAD. Thus securing a balance between effective policing and safeguarding inherent civil liberties.

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