In a landmark court case, a European court has ruled that law enforcement agencies can't keep DNA samples from people who have never been convicted of a crime. In the unanimous judgment, the
European Court of Human Rights ruled that keeping the samples was in violation of people's right to a private life, a protection under the Human Rights Convention [AP].
Its decision, which is binding on all 46 members of the Council of Europe, will have an immediate impact on around 850,000 innocent people whose genetic profiles are stored on the police DNA database in England and Wales [The Economist].
In those parts of the United Kingdom, the police collect a DNA sample from anyone arrested on a "recordable" offense, a category that includes everything from murder to "fraudulently evading bingo duty." That sample is stored for the rest of the person's life, even if they're never convicted of the crime they were arrested for. If the U.K. doesn't appeal the new ruling, the English and Welsh police will have to immediately destroy the genetic profiles of everyone without a criminal record. The case began with an English man who was arrested for harassing his partner (the charges were later dropped) and with a teenage boy who was a juvenile when he was arrested for robbery (he was acquitted). Both asked that their DNA profiles be destroyed and both were denied; they then spent seven years fighting the case through the court system. According to court documents, the pair said they were worried
"about possible current and future uses of those data. They further contend that the retention casts suspicion on people who have been acquitted or discharged of crimes and that they should be treated in the same way as the rest of the unconvicted population" [Telegraph].
U.K. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was disappointed in the latest court ruling, and said
the existing law will remain in place while ministers consider the judgment. "DNA and fingerprinting is vital to the fight against crime, providing the police with more than 3,500 matches a month," Ms Smith said [Sky News].
Britain's DNA database is thought to be the largest in the world; most European governments keep DNA samples of only the most dangerous criminals. In the United States, federal and state laws vary: The FBI takes samples from arrested suspects but will destroy those records, on request, if the suspect isn't convicted of a crime. Among the states, only California allows the police to store DNA profiles of people without criminal records. Related Content: 80beats: For the Greater Good, Ten Pioneers Will Post Their Genomes on the Internet 80beats: NIH Yanks Genetic Databases From the Web, Citing Privacy Worries Discoblog: DNA Cops Crack Down on Flower Theft and Other High Crimes Discoblog: Criminals, Beware: Your Name Might Be in Your DNA DISCOVER: Q & A with Eric Juengst—discusses the FBI's genetic database Image: iStockphoto