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Court Ruling Against British Police DNA Database Raises Privacy Issues

December 4, 2008

Europe’s human rights court ruled on Thursday against practices in Britain that retained DNA information for two individuals whose cases had been dismissed.

One of the individuals was an 11-year-old boy who had been accused of attempted robbery, and was later acquitted. The other individual was a man who was charged with harassing his partner; his case was formally discontinued.

However, even as police were asked to destroy their DNA samples, they kept the information on the basis of a law allowing them to do so indefinitely.

The 17 judges ruled unanimously that Britain had violated the right to respect for private life. They awarded the two people concerned 42,000 euros ($53,000) in expenses.

The ruling shed light on Britain’s practice of storing DNA profiles, and spurred campaign groups to call for an immediate change of law.

“The court was struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention,” said the European Court of Human Rights, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg.

“The powers of retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offences … failed to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests,” it said.

Campaign group Liberty immediately issued a statement calling for some 85,000 DNA profiles to be destroyed.

“The decision will require the UK government to reconsider its policies under which the DNA of innocent individuals … is permanently retained by police,” the group said in a statement.

British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she disagreed with the court’s ruling.

“DNA and fingerprinting is vital to the fight against crime, providing the police with more than 3,500 matches a month … The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgment,” Smith said.

Police defended their right to retain DNA profiles, saying the practice had helped identify many criminals.

“From May 2001 to December 2005, 200,000 DNA samples were retained on the National DNA Database which would previously have had to
be removed as they were taken from people charged but not convicted of offences,” said Chris Sims of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

“Of these, about 8,500 profiles of individuals have been linked with crime scene profiles involving nearly 14,000 offences,” Sims said.

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