Police allowed to keep convicts' DNA samples forever

Belfast High Court A lawyer said the Belfast High Court case could lead to the destruction of DNA records across Europe

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Police in Northern Ireland can retain indefinitely DNA samples and fingerprints of convicted offenders, the High Court in Belfast has ruled.

Judges rejected a test case which tried to establish the policy was a breach of privacy rights.

A European ruling had found it was wrong to retain the profiles of people who had been found innocent.

Lawyers for a man convicted of drink-driving had tried to get this extended to those guilty of "lesser offences".

Database

They had predicted that if judges backed their case, it could lead to the destruction of vast amounts of police records throughout Europe.

Start Quote

The retention of data serves the additional purpose of discouraging a convicted offender from re-offending”

End Quote Lord Justice Girvan High Court judge

According to records, there are some 700,000 fingerprints and 123,000 DNA samples on the database in Northern Ireland alone.

Fergus Gaughran provided his fingerprints, a photograph and DNA profiles after being arrested for suspected drink-driving near Camlough, County Armagh in October 2008.

He later pleaded guilty to the offence and was disqualified from driving for a year.

His lawyers had argued in the High Court that a blanket retention policy was wrong, and the state should make decisions based on the seriousness of the offence.

Differ significantly

Dismissing the challenge, Lord Justice Girvan said the retention of such records was valuable in the fight against crime.

The judges made a number of other points:

  • Convicted people's rights and expectations differ significantly from those who have not been convicted of a crime
  • Severe restrictions have been imposed on the lawful uses of fingerprints and DNA samples
  • Police currently do distinguish between those convicted of non-recordable and recordable offences

Lord Justice Girvan added: "In this case the offence committed by the applicant cannot, as the applicant asserts, be described as minor or trivial.

"It was an offence of a potentially dangerous anti-social nature."

He added: "The retention of data serves the additional purpose of discouraging a convicted offender from re-offending, for the offender has the knowledge that the police have available data which could lead to his detection.

"These factors point to the conclusion that the policy of indefinite retention is not disproportionate and, accordingly, the applicant's application must be dismissed."

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