Perils of a DNA database
Although I agree with Sandy Yeh’s ideas in recent articles (“Protecting women and children,”April 9, page 8; “Database for DNA key to full sex crime law,” April 13, page 8) on the importance of a DNA profiling database for sex offenders in Taiwan, she fails to identify any of the problems associated with the type of database she is advocating, namely a universal database of all arrested persons.
This type of database has been introduced by stealth in the UK and in all but name in the US. As has been shown by the recent European Supreme Court ruling against the British government, such a database is an invasion of privacy when it is impossible to get a profile removed from it, even if the person is found innocent through a trial or is not charged.
Even after the ruling, the UK government refused to implement any changes. This is because of the belief expounded in one of her articles that “the number of cases solved as a result has increased more than 100-fold.”
One can assume that this means “as a result of DNA profiling has increased,” but this is not clear. In addition it is not obvious how such a measure could be calculated, as one cannot know if a case would be solved in the absence of DNA evidence.
Notwithstanding the oft repeated propaganda on DNA profiling, it is important to realize that a universal database of all arrested persons dramatically increases the chances of miscarriages of justice. This is caused by so-called “cold hits.” In such cases a person is arrested for a minor misdemeanor, such as jaywalking, and then has a DNA sample taken to be added to the database. This is now the norm in the UK and is becoming so in the US.
While this does, on occasion, catch rapists and murderers, it also creates a major statistical problem. The probability of a match on a DNA database for a random individual is usually in the region of billions to one. However, the probability of an error in the database is probably in the region of tens of thousands to one and therefore the cold hit is most likely to be wrong in some cases.
We do not know what the error rate is in the UK, but there has been at least one case where such an error was detected, and this is probably the tip of the iceberg.
In the above circumstance I believe that a DNA database in Taiwan should be limited to criminals that have been convicted of serious crimes against people and property. In addition, the criminal database and the database containing the profiles of suspected and arrested persons should be kept separate and the law should include a statutory requirement to delete the profile of anyone who is not charged, is found not guilty or is found to be innocent on appeal.
Having been found guilty of a serious crime changes the “cold hit” into a “warm hit” because there is previous behavioral evidence.
In addition to the above, the logic of which applies to all countries, Taiwan needs to take particular care because of the peculiarities of its legal system. The UK and US have full adversarial systems of justice involving juries that are used to trying serious criminal cases. Taiwan has a continental system that is not fully adversarial and where the judge is central to evidence gathering, particularly in the case of scientific evidence.
In my personal experience in South Africa, judges can be fairer and more independent than juries. However, unlike the UK and South Africa, Taiwanese judges are younger, less experienced and have generally not been either prosecution or defense lawyers for 20 or more years. Judges are not scientists, and although CSI makes you think DNA evidence is simple, it is not. The possible problems with such evidence can be enormous, up to and including faking the evidence, and not to mention the complex ethnic factors at play in Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan lacks an independent accredited DNA profiling laboratory. These circumstances are going to make challenging any DNA evidence in court very hard.
Taiwan does need a proper DNA database, but let Taiwan choose the correct basis for this to avoid being plagued with more miscarriages of justice. It is better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man is found guilty, and particularly because of a cold hit on a DNA database, that person could be you.
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