DNA retention

Stockpiling of innocent people's DNA

When someone has their DNA taken after being arrested for a recordable offence, it is held in the National DNA Database.

Recordable offences include all offences that could lead to imprisonment, as well some other minor offences such as begging and being drunk in a public place.

Before 2001, DNA was only collected when a person was charged with an offence, and then it was destroyed if the person was acquitted.

By 2003, the law had changed to allow DNA to be taken on arrest for a recordable offence – and for it to be kept indefinitely.

With around 5 million DNA profiles stored on the database, it is the largest per capita DNA database in the world – second only to the United States.

The policy of indefinitely retaining the DNA of anyone arrested – but not necessarily convicted – means that hundreds of thousands of innocent people have had their DNA permanently retained. This includes thousands of innocent children.

The DNA database is also highly discriminatory. It has been estimated that between a half and three-quarters of young black men have had their DNA stored on the DNA Database. This is because young black men are arrested in disproportionately high numbers, but this is not then reflected in a higher number of convictions.

Landmark legal case: S & Marper v UK

In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights heard a landmark case on the issue of DNA retention – and Liberty intervened in the case. The Court held that this blanket and indiscriminate retention policy breached the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Reform under the Protection of Freedoms Act

In 2010, the Government pledged to make changes to the DNA retention regime through the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Under the new regime, which came into force in October 2013, the DNA and fingerprints of individuals arrested or charged but not convicted of an offence could now be destroyed after a certain length of time.

This time period depends on the circumstances of the case and the age of the arrested person.

For example, an adult or child arrested or charged but not convicted of a minor offence will have their DNA destroyed at the end of the investigation.

An adult or child arrested but not charged with a serious sexual offence can have their DNA retained for up to five years. The first three years must be with the consent of the Biometrics Commissioner, and the further two years requires an application to the courts.

Where a conviction is for a recordable offence, the police may continue to retain the convicted person’s DNA indefinitely.

The Act also provides for the destruction of DNA samples and profiles already retained under the current regime. The Biometric Commissioner’s 2015 annual report indicated that a total of 7,753,000 DNA samples were destroyed by the Government in anticipation of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 coming into force, and more have been deleted since.

While Liberty welcomes changes to the blanket retention policy, the numerous exceptions remain an ongoing concern. As it stands, the police can retain the DNA and fingerprints of completely innocent people for a significant length of time.