Monday, March 30, 2009

How I got my genes deleted

I've had my DNA struck from police records - now it's over to the rest of you 799,999 innocents

Mark Thomas

Until Tuesday I was one of 800,000 innocent people in the UK who had their DNA on the police database. Most of us had a swab sample taken on arrest and our identifiable cell clusters have languished on police files even if charges were dropped or we were found not guilty in court.

In 2003 I was arrested at a protest against the arms dealer BAE Systems and charged with causing £80 worth of damage to a bus. Leaving aside the irony that if any BAE Systems products only caused £80 of damage the purchasers would sue for a refund, seven months later I found myself on trial. After two days I was acquitted on the legal technicality of being innocent. More important, the court found there was no evidence for a crime having been committed in the first place. The experience left me frustrated, with only a 20-minute comedy routine to take away the pain of injustice.

Now before folk howl that I am a champagne anarchist happy to harp on about civil liberties while murderers run free, let me explain my objections. I have no problem with those found guilty of a serious criminal offence being on the database, especially those in prison - it seems small beer that the state holds a tiny amount of their DNA on file when the primary clump of their genes is being held at Her Majesty's pleasure. Likewise those who have served their time: being on the database is the price you pay for having, as the Sweeney would say, "previous". Neither do I object to the police taking my DNA in the first place - but once a person is proven innocent what right and reason do the police have to retain the DNA profile?

In December 2008 all this changed when the European court of human rights ruled that by retaining the DNA of the innocent, the UK government was in breach of Article 8 of the European convention, the right to family and private life. A spirit of optimism filled campaigners as Jacqui Smith had three months to comply with the ruling. However, the one thing we have learnt about Labour home secretaries and civil liberties is that they don't much like liberty. Or civility. Three months passed and nothing changed. So with my lawyer I sent a letter before claim to the Met commissioner, essentially threatening to issue judicial review proceedings unless my DNA was removed.

We based the claim on a number of points. One was the European ruling, another was the fact that police commissioners have the discretion to remove DNA samples in "exceptional circumstances". Not only was there no evidence of the crime I was charged with but my DNA had been hanging around for over five years with no convictions attaching themselves to it. These seemed "exceptional circumstances".

On Tuesday the police replied with one line: "I can confirm that a decision has been made to delete your client's fingerprints and DNA sample and DNA profile." No explanation why.

Victory celebrations, though, might be premature. As the law remains unchanged it leaves the onus on individuals to write to the police seeking removal. Helen Wallace, from the NGO GeneWatch, says she has received "copies of letters from lots of individuals who have not been convicted of any offence who are being refused removal from the database". As Jacqui Smith has dodged the issue it is up to us. There are 799,999 of you out there, mostly pissed off, some eligible for legal aid, and everyone with the motivation to do their bit in rolling back the data state. Go on, write in.


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