The fingerprints and DNA samples of more than 857,000 innocent citizens in the UK who have been arrested or charged but never convicted of a criminal offence now face deletion from the country’s national DNA database after a landmark ruling by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.
In one of their most strongly worded judgments in recent years, the unanimous ruling from the 17 judges, including a British judge, Nicolas Bratza, condemned the “blanket and indiscriminate” nature of the powers given to the police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to retain the DNA samples and fingerprints of suspects who have been released or cleared.
The judges were highly critical of the fact that the DNA samples could be retained without time limit and regardless of the seriousness of the offense or the age of the suspect.
The court said there was a particular risk that innocent people would be stigmatized because they were being treated in the same way as convicted criminals. The judges said that the fact DNA profiles could be used to identify family relationships between individuals meant its indefinite retention also amounted to an interference with their right to respect for their private lives under the human rights convention.
The case provoked an expression of disappointment from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and the promise that a working party, including senior police officials, will report back to Strasbourg by next March on how the UK government will comply with the judgment.
“The government mounted a robust defense before the court and I strongly believe DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime and bringing people to justice. The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgment,” Smith said.
It is thought that the policy in Scotland, where DNA samples can only be held for a maximum of five years and only in serious violent and sexual cases, even if the suspect was not convicted, will be the first option to be looked at.
The Strasbourg court ruling came in a case brought by two men from Sheffield, northern England, who asked for their DNA records to be destroyed. The first man, Michael Marper, aged 45, was arrested in 2001 and charged with harassing his partner, but the case was dropped three months later after the couple were reconciled. He had no previous convictions.
In the second case, a 19-year-old named only in court as “S” was arrested and charged with attempted robbery in January 2001 when he was 12, but was cleared five months later.
Both asked the South Yorkshire police to remove and destroy their DNA samples and profiles and fingerprints. But police said they needed to retain them “to aid criminal investigation.”