DNA Databases: Another Human Rights Violation in the U.S. Criminal Justice System?

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie December 9, 2008
Biopolitical Times
One of the more dubious aspects of the United States criminal justice system is the long list of practices that others in the Western World consider to be blatant human rights violations. This includes the death penalty, the so-called “prison industrial complex,” and the disproportionate policing, prosecution, and imprisonment of racial minorities. But a ruling last week out of the European Court of Human Rights suggests that the US can now add another one to the list: the collection and retention of DNA profiles from arrestees never convicted of a crime.

While the expansion of DNA databases in the United States has been well documented, the latest trend has been the permanent retention of DNA samples from those arrested but never convicted. Proponents of this move argue that expanding the collection of DNA samples to arrestees will improve law enforcement; opponents point out that these materials are highly sensitive and implicate family members other than the individual arrestee. This privacy concern is what largely persuaded the European Court of Human Rights to rule against the UK policy of retaining arrestees’ samples.

The case was brought by two men: a then 12 year old accused of armed robbery and a 45 year old charged with harassing his partner. Neither was ever convicted, yet their DNA remained in the UK database after several requests to remove them. The Court did not mince words in describing the human rights impact of this practice:
the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the powers of retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offences, as applied in the case of the present applicants, fails to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests and that the respondent State has overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation in this regard. Accordingly, the retention at issue constitutes a disproportionate interference with the applicants' right to respect for private life and cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society.