Magazine section: This Week

Police attacked over DNA fingerprinting

New Scientist vol 133 issue 1804 - 18 January 92, page 12

Liberty, the British council for civil liberties, has renewed its campaign challenging the police practice of keeping DNA fingerprints of suspects who have been cleared of a crime. Last week, the group applied to have a test case heard at the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to force the British government to lay down in law what powers the police have over DNA fingerprints.

Checking the genetic profiles-the DNA fingerprints-of suspects against those from hair, blood or semen found at the scenes of crimes is increasingly common. As a result, the police hold growing numbers of profiles. Liberty argues that the police have no authority to store this information and that there should be laws to govern how it is used.

John Wadham, Liberty's legal officer, says decisions over how to deal with DNA profiles are being made covertly. 'They should not be taken behind closed doors. Parliament should decide these things,' he says. People consenting to give samples cannot take into account how those samples will be used if these policies are not made public, he says.

Liberty's test case concerns Roy Williams from east London, who gave a blood sample to police in 1982. Six years later he was asked to provide another specimen for DNA analysis after police found that his blood type matched that of a bloodstain crucial to a murder case. Although Williams was eliminated from the murder inquiry, the police refused to destroy details of his DNA profile, which had been added to their computer records.

Liberty took up the case and eventually forced the police to remove Williams's DNA profile from their computer. The police, however, refused to destroy the paper copy of the profile.

Wadham argues that Williams gave a blood sample only to help with the murder inquiry. By retaining his DNA profile on its computer, the police breached the Data Protection Act, he says. The act states that information gathered for one purpose cannot be used for another. A spokesman for the Data Protection Registrar says the registrar is investigating the use of DNA profiles by the police. However, the act is confined to data held on computer.

What the police can and cannot do with details of 'intimate specimens' and conventional fingerprints is laid down in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE). But the act does not mention DNA profiles specifically. A Home Office spokeswoman says present policy is for profiles of those awaiting trial, convicted criminals and specimens from unsolved crimes to be kept on computer. 'DNA taken from a person cleared of an offence is cleared from the (computer) database but may be kept on paper as part of the case record,' she says.

PACE stipulates that when a person is cleared of a crime, their conventional fingerprints are destroyed. But Peter Martin, deputy director of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory in London, argues that DNA profiles should be kept. 'If we actually go through the process of scientific analysis we would have to keep them (DNA profiles) for future checking,' he says.

Martin argues that the successful appeals of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six highlight the need to keep records of scientific analyses and interpretations. However, he says that DNA profiles of unconvicted people 'wouldn't be put on computer and searched against'. At present the Metropolitan Police have 270 DNA profiles on their computer from unsolved crimes and about 400 from named individuals.

Williams's case is not likely to be heard in Strasbourg until next year, by which time events may have overtaken it. Within weeks, the Council of Europe is expected to recommend a set of guidelines to govern the national and international use of DNA analysis. Trevor Rothwell, chairman of the working group that has drafted the guidelines, says the document lays out principles that ought to be adopted to meet existing legislation and avoid violating civil rights.