DNA Database – The Age of Innocence

The Government has today proposed new rules for the retention of DNA profiles and fingerprints on the police national DNA database.  The proposals, which are made in the context of a public consultation process (‘Keeping the Right People on the DNA Database’), come in the wake of the Marper judgment (4 December 2008). In Marper, the ECtHR held that a blanket policy under which fingerprints, cellular samples  and DNA profiles were indefinitely retained by the police constituted a disproportionate and, hence, unlawful interference with Article 8 rights to privacy. The new proposed rules aim to circumvent the problems posed by having a blanket indefinite retention policy by varying the length of time that data can be retained depending in the innocence of the suspect and the severity of the crime in respect of which they were arrested. Thus, the DNA profiles and fingerprints of individuals who are arrested but not convicted in respect of minor offences will be destroyed after a period of six years; individuals who are arrested but not convicted for more serious violent and sexual offences and terrorism-related offences will have to wait twelve years for their DNA profiles and fingerprints to be destroyed; individuals who are convicted of an imprisonable offence will have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained indefinitely. The proposals have received a rebarbative response from civil liberties campaigners, many of whom had expected the Government to destroy some 850,000 DNA profiles, fingerprints and samples in response to the Marper judgment. Of course, the question has to be posed whether it can ever be a proportionate interference with privacy rights to retain data in respect of individuals whose guilt was never established in respect of the offence for which they were arrested and who must, in the circumstances, be deemed innocent. The Government’s answer to this question appears to be that the interference is justified because: (a) criminology research suggests that, over time, the retained data can be used to convict those ostensibly innocent individuals of subsequent crimes; and (b) accordingly, retention of the data will constitute a vital weapon in the fight against crime. The presumption underlying this answer appears to be that, in a statistically significant number of cases, individuals who appear to be innocent in respect of one crime are in fact destined to go on to commit crimes in the future, such that it is legitimate for their data to be retained for a relatively substantial period of time (either six or twelve years). Whilst the more nuanced approach to the retention of DNA profiles may be relatively well placed to survive a legal challenge in the domestic courts (see further the House of Lords judgment in Marper [2004] UKHL 39, [2004] 1 WLR 2196), it remains to be seen whether the ECtHR would regard that approach as falling within the four corners of the justification defence under Article 8(2).