The DNA database and Mark Dixie

Update: The Times also has a useful look at Labour’s claims on this issue.

The Labour Party continue to portray Tory plans to restrict the retention of DNA of those charged, but never convicted, of a crime as somehow being “soft” on criminals, citing the case of Sally Anne Bowman who was killed and raped by Mark Dixie:

Gordon Brown MP, Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party, and Alan Johnson MP, Labour’s Home Secretary, will today make a campaign visit to highlight the vital role that DNA plays in tackling violent crime and why Labour has been fighting Tory plans to downgrade the DNA database.

At the visit in Stevenage the Prime Minister and Home Secretary will be joined by Linda Bowman, whose daughter Sally Anne was murdered in 2005.

Sally Anne’s murderer Mark Dixie was convicted through use of the DNA register, having been arrested but not convicted in a pub brawl.

The problem with this line of attack is that the Tories’ plans would not have made any difference in Mark Dixie’s case. When he was arrested his DNA was taken and compared to samples from the Sally Anne Bowman case. There was no need to have his DNA on the database to do that. There was thus no need to retain DNA for those never charged or never convicted to solve similar such cases. All that’s needed is to have a database of DNA collected from crime scenes and to have a policy of checking arrestees’ DNA against that of old crime scenes.

Such an approach is surely a far more proportionate use of DNA, far more respectful of privacy whilst at the same time more focussed on solving crime than retention of the DNA of those never charged with a crime in the first place, or those who have charges dropped or are acquitted.

Meanwhile, Genewatch point out that many of Labour’s other claims about the DNA database have to be taken with a large dose of salt.

Gordon Brown’s flawed argument about the retention of DNA from arrestees

The Labour party’s campaign currently berates the Tories for their policy on removing the DNA of those arrested but not convicted of a crime, suggesting (without explicitly stating) that this stance makes them soft on crime.

Recently the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown attemptrf to paint this stance as being soft on rapists. During a recent speech on crime and anti-social behaviour, Brown argued:

“Some argue that liberty dictates we should immediately wipe from the DNA database everyone who has been arrested but not convicted of an offence. But if we did this, some sickening crimes would have gone unsolved, and many dangerous criminals would have remained at large.

Let me give you just one example. In May 1991, a woman confined to a wheelchair was attacked and raped by a man who tricked his way into her home. A DNA sample was recovered, but no suspect was found. In June 2007, South Yorkshire Police’s ‘cold case team’ reinvestigated the case and the DNA sample was re-analysed using new techniques. A match was made with a profile from a man named Jeremiah Sheridan who had been arrested in 2005 in Cambridgeshire for a public order offence, but not convicted. It proved very difficult to trace Sheridan – but after the case was highlighted on ‘Crimewatch’ in 2008, South Yorkshire Police got several new leads including one that Sheridan was in Australia. He was arrested on his return at Heathrow airport and, last September, having pleaded guilty, he was sentenced to 16 and a half years.

The next time you hear somebody question the value of retaining DNA profiles from those who have been arrested but not convicted, remember Jeremiah Sheridan. And most of all remember the innocent woman he attacked.”

The problem with this argument is that the retention of the DNA of all arrestees is simply unnecessary for solving cases such as the Sheridan case above. If a policy of storing a database of crime scene DNA samples was in operation, with the DNA of those arrested being routinely matched against entries on that database, then Sheridan would have been caught in 2005, over a year before the case was reopened.

The question this case raises is why Sheridan’s DNA wasn’t checked against that found at past crime scenes whilst he was in custody in 2005. The failure to do this, resulting in him being let go, ensured the case would have to drag on for several more years consuming more police time and resources as a result.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , . Comments Off on Gordon Brown’s flawed argument about the retention of DNA from arrestees

Police can keep DNA samples of innocent people

As noted on Samizdata, White Rose and the blog, and reported in The Telegraph, it has recently been ruled that the police can keep the DNA samples of those who are arrested and charged and who either had the charges dropped or were cleared in a subsequent trial. This upholds a change in the law introduced in 2001 to allow the police to retain DNA samples for use in “crime prevention or investigation”.

Thus anyone who is arrested and charged can have their DNA samples taken and stored indefinitely, regardless of whether they’re susbequently cleared or not thus entirely innocent people will have their DNA samples stored indefinitely by the police.

According to the Telegraph, Lord Brown said the only logical reason for objecting to samples being kept by the police was that it would make it easier for authorities to arrest someone if they ever offended in future.

This is quite simply false:

  • DNA samples contain potentially very sensitive medical information such as whether someone has a predisposition to certain diseases or may indeed suffer from a genetically caused disease. The storing of such samples by the police opens up opportunities for abuse of this information by corrupt/unscrupulous officers. By retaining the DNA of the innocent, you expose them this risk.
  • Retaining DNA samples will also open up opportunities to frame people by planting their DNA at the scene of a crime, knowing that their DNA is on file and likely to be checked. This possibility is not even restricted to unscrupulous officers. Anyone who knows that someone was arrested and charged for a crime will know that their DNA is likely to be on file as a result. Again another risk that the innocent accused would be exposed to.
  • DNA matching is not a fool-proof process. Problems such as contamination of samples, or erroneously labelling of samples can lead to false matches being reported. Those whose DNA has been stored will be subjected to these risks and may find themselves in the dock again as result.
  • As points out, the retention of the DNA samples may even affect one’s ability to get a job. Should an employer ask for an Enhanced Disclosure from the Criminal Records Bureau, they will be told that the police have some sort of record on you (though not the details). To assume that some employers won’t hold this against you would be naive.
  • The fact that DNA samples can be retained indefinitely also gives the police the incentive to arrest and charged people as a means of expanding the DNA database, thus offering an incentive to arrest and charge people that has nothing to do with whether they’re guilty of a crime or not.

The judge also argued that the DNA database should be expanded. According to the Telegraph:

In 2001, the law was changed to allow the police to keep a database of samples taken from suspects, though the retained samples may be used only in crime prevention or investigation.

Lord Brown said the benefits of this procedure were so manifest and the objections so threadbare that the cause of human rights would be better served by expanding the police database rather than by reducing it.

“The larger the database, the less call there will be to round up the usual suspects,” he said. “Indeed, those amongst the usual suspects who are innocent will at once be exonerated.”

But is this true? The larger the database the greater the probability of the following:

* human error leading to a false match leading to an innocent person in the dock

* a false match occuring due to limitations of the technology used in DNA profiling (there’s a non-zero probability of a false match regardless of human error).

* that planting DNA at the scene of a crime will result in someone else being put in the frame.

* that someone gets put in the frame because they innocently left their DNA at the scene of a crime.

* that criminals will know that leaving DNA around is risky and will adapt their behaviour.

All of these will reduce the value of DNA evidence. Indeed suppose we were to create a DNA database of the entire population (ultimately taking samples at birth). Then a criminal could be certain of wasting police time by dropping randomly collected DNA at the scenes of his crimes, and taking steps to ensure he does not leave his own DNA there (will the police consider that none of the DNA samples they find at the scene of a crime come from the perpetrator?) .

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , , . Comments Off on Police can keep DNA samples of innocent people

More on the DNA database

For those who read my blog on the Scottish Police Federation’s outcry against requiring recruits to submit DNA samples for the national database, don’t get me wrong. I do think DNA fingerprinting is a useful tool and I do not object to DNA testing of suspects during the investigation of crime, especially serious crime.

What I object to is the permanent storing, without consent, of DNA samples collected from suspects and volunteers regardless of whether they get convicted of a crime or not. This amounts to placing members of the general public under permanent suspicion regardless of whether they have a criminal record or not. And, as the Scottish Police Federation realise, those who have their DNA samples on the database are at risk of being framed for crime by those who’d abuse the system. The SPF’s objections when the police are demanded to give DNA samples, provide a stark contrast to the normally enthusiastic pronouncements of police spokesmen when the general public are demanded to give such samples.

Also, if samples can be permanently retained once given, regardless of whether a suspect or volunteer has been convicted or gives consent, this provides an incentive for the police and the authorities who maintain the database to get samples from people purely in order to have them on the database, and thus to arrest and charge people of a crime simply to get their DNA sample or to intimidate people into giving “voluntary” DNA samples. Those who think I’m being paranoid should take a look at this article from a local Sunderland newspaper:

Hundreds of men living on Seaham’s Westlea estate are to be tested after DNA, believed to be that of the attacker, was recovered from the crime scene. Police say they will “look closely” at anyone who refuses to take the DNA test.


The screening will take us a major step nearer to finding the person responsible,” said Det Chief Insp Brian Tait, leading the investigation. He added: “Everyone who takes part will do so as a volunteer, but we would certainly look closely at the reasons offered by any individual who refused to help”.

Thus refusing to take the supposedly voluntary DNA test will ensure the police “look closely” at you. In this atmosphere, it appears that every man in a certain age group must give a test (and thus be permanently on the database) or be treated as highly suspicious at best, despite the fact they claim to be searching for an attacker with certain characteristics:

The man being hunted is thin, about six feet tall and was wearing a dark mask, dark top with hood and slightly lighter coloured trousers.

As a result, a large chunk of the male population of Seaham’s Westlea estate are about to have their DNA on the database permanently, and under some pressure, despite having committed no crime, and not being convicted or even being charged with a crime.

Of course, the police are investigating serious crime here — the rapes of 2 elderly women. Of course if they have good reason to suspect someone of committing the crime they should be able to do a DNA test as part of the investigation. But what is actually happening, I grant most probably through the best intentions of the police to solve this crime, is that a large number of men will be tested and their DNA permanently stored, even though they had nothing to do with the crime.

The sad thing is that the actual culprit now has a strong incentive to leave the area to avoid this publicised exercise in DNA collecting. Of course there’s no guarantee that if DNA samples had to be destroyed if the subject is released without charge or is acquitted, the police wouldn’t do a blanket testing like this. However the incentive to do so is greater with the permanent storage of even voluntary samples, and it appears that the police are pressurising every man they ask in this “voluntary” exercise to give a sample or else. And for those who want everyone’s DNA on the database these sorts of exercises provide a means of achieving this goal incrementally by stealth, as well as softening people up for the time when they make it compulsory.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , . Comments Off on More on the DNA database

Scottish police "outrage" over demand for their DNA

The Scotland on Sunday newspaper reports that plans to require all new recruits to hand over DNA samples for a national database have led to a rebellion amongst Scottish police officers. This is in stark contrast to the enthusiasm usually shown by police spokesmen (e.g. see comments towards the end of this article) for plans to collect and retain the DNA samples of the general public without requiring us to be charged or convicted of an offence.

Surely the Scottish Police Federation has nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear from this? At least that’s the usual line taken when such measures are proposed for the public, but the slogan “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is a slogan for fools. It assumes the innocent have nothing to hide, and implicitly assumes the authorities can always be trusted.

The Scotland on Sunday article does point out various dangers of having all recruits donate samples to this database, but surely these dangers equally apply to collecting and retaining samples from the public?

NB according to the article, since last summer new recruits south of the border already have to hand over DNA samples.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , . Comments Off on Scottish police "outrage" over demand for their DNA