DNA profiling is an increasingly valuable tool for detecting and prosecuting offenders, but more safeguards are needed to protect the liberty and privacy of the innocent, according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
One of the safeguards recommended by the Council is that the police should only be allowed to keep the DNA of people who are convicted of a crime. Currently, the police can permanently store DNA taken from people who have been arrested even if they are later found to be innocent.
”Innocent people are concerned about how their DNA might be used in future if it is kept on the National DNA Database without their consent,” said Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC, Chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
The exception would be people charged with serious violent or sexual offences, whose DNA could be kept for up to five years even if they are not convicted. These changes would bring the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland into line with that in Scotland.
The powers of the police in England and Wales to take DNA are wider than those in any other country. DNA can be taken, without consent, from any person arrested for a ‘recordable’ offence (mostly offences that can lead to a prison sentence). The DNA is then stored indefinitely on the National DNA Database.
The Government has announced plans to expand these powers further, by allowing police to take and store DNA from those arrested for ‘non-recordable’ offences, such as littering and minor traffic offences. The Nuffield Council recommends that these proposals should be dropped.
“After careful consideration, we do not think that this is justified at the current time,” said Professor Hepple. “We would like to see the police put more resources into the collection of DNA from crime scenes, rather than from individuals suspected of minor offences.” At present, fewer than 20% of crime scenes are forensically examined.
Further recommendations made by the Council are outlined below. In each case, the Council weighed up whether the need to protect public safety was sufficient to justify interfering with innocent people’s liberty and privacy.
Children are currently treated in the same way as adults when it comes to taking and storing their DNA. There are around 750,000 under-18s on the National DNA Database. The United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child requires that special attention be given to children in the legal system, including opportunities for rehabilitation. The Nuffield Council therefore recommends that there should be a presumption in favour of removing DNA taken from children from the Database, if requested, unless there is a good reason not to, for example, if they have committed a very serious offence.
A population-wide DNA database?
Some believe that taking the DNA of everyone at birth to build a population-wide forensic database would assist the police whilst also removing problems of discrimination. However, this would be hugely expensive and would have only a small impact on public safety. The intrusion of privacy incurred would therefore be disproportionate to any possible benefits to society. For these reasons, the Nuffield Council is against the establishment of a population-wide forensic DNA database at the current time.
When DNA collected at a crime scene does not match exactly any profile on the Database, it is possible to search for partial matches which would reveal genetic relatives of the person who left the DNA at the crime scene. Many possible relatives can be found, and the process may reveal previously unknown family relationships. The Council recommends that familial searching should not be used unless it is specifically justified in each case.
When DNA is collected from individuals, it is allocated by the arresting officers to one of seven broad ethnic groups. This information has been used in research and now forensic analysts can tell the police the likely ethnic group of a person whose DNA has been collected from a crime scene to narrow down the pool of suspects. However, the practice of assigning a ‘racial type’ to individuals is subjective and inconsistent, and genetic research does not support the idea that humans can be classified by appearance into a limited number of ‘races’. This practice may therefore be misleading. The Council recommends that ‘ethnic inferences’ should not be routinely sought, and they should be used with great caution.
Victims or witnesses may be asked by the police to volunteer DNA samples as part of a criminal investigation. The police may also ask volunteers to allow their DNA to be added permanently to the National DNA Database. If they agree, there is currently no option for it to be removed at a later date. The Nuffield Council recommends that volunteers should be able to have their DNA removed at any time without having to give a reason.
DNA evidence in court
DNA evidence is very influential in court, but it is accompanied by complicated statistical information that can be difficult for non-scientists to understand. The Council recommends that legal professionals should acquire a minimum understanding of statistics with regard to DNA evidence. Information should also be made available to jury members about the capabilities and limitations of DNA evidence.
Governance and ethical oversight
The Council recommends that the regulation of forensic databases should be enshrined in law – currently regulation in this area is disjointed and patchy. The Council also suggests that an independent tribunal should be set up to oversee requests by individuals to remove their DNA from the National Database, and that safeguards should be put in place regarding access to the Database by international law enforcement agencies.
These conclusions and recommendations have been published in a Report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics called The Forensic Use of Bioinformation: Ethical Issues. The Report was prepared by a Working Group established in October 2006, which included members with expertise in law, genetics, philosophy and social science. To inform discussions, the Group held a public consultation and met with representatives from relevant organisations.
For further information contact:
Communications & External Affairs Manager
Nuffield Council on Bioethics
28 Bedford Square
London WC1B 3JS
Tel: +44 (0)20 7681 9619
Mob: +44 (0)7747 635863
Notes to Editors
1. Copies of the Report will be available to download on 18th September 2007 from the Council website: www.nuffieldbioethics.org. For a printed copy please e-mail: email@example.com.
2. Members of the Working Party:
Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC FBA (Chair)
Chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics; Emeritus Master of Clare College and Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Cambridge
Mr Graham Cooke
Professor Søren Holm
Member of the Council; Professorial Fellow in Bioethics, Cardiff Law School and part-time Professor of Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway
Professor Graeme Laurie
Director, AHRC Research Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology, University of Edinburgh
Dr Bronwyn Parry
Member of the Council; Reader in Social and Cultural Geography, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Andrew Read
Chair of Human Genetics, University of Manchester
Professor Robin Williams
Professor of Sociology, School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Durham
Project Manager: Dr Carole McCartney
Lecturer, Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, University of Leeds
3. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics examines ethical issues raised by new developments in biology and medicine. Established by the Nuffield Foundation in 1991, the Council is an independent body, funded jointly by the Foundation, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.
The Council has achieved an international reputation for addressing public concerns, and providing independent advice to assist policy makers and stimulate debate in bioethics. www.nuffieldbioethics.org
4. DNA in the Dock
These issues will be discussed at a public discussion event, entitled ‘DNA in the Dock’, on 27th September 2007, 19:00-20:30, at the Dana Centre in London.