Monday, April 14, 2008

Officials Spar over DNA Database

April 14, 2008

Rick Westhead- The Canadian Press

For three months, court employees across Canada have been knocking on doors and going into prisons to get DNA samples from thousands of violent criminals who initially slipped through the fingers of the country’s rapidly growing DNA database.

Already the unique genetic code of roughly one in 250 Canadians is in the data bank. But police say that’s not nearly enough.

Toronto police Chief Bill Blair hopes that, as soon as 2011, police will have the power to demand DNA samples from anyone charged — not just convicted — of serious crimes.

"DNA doesn’t discriminate," said Blair. "It’s a revolutionary crime-fighting tool."

Blair is championing a broadened genetic data bank even as police and privacy advocates throughout the Western world spar over who should be forced to surrender their DNA.

In a move that left civil libertarians aghast, the U.K. recently began collecting samples from suspects when they’re charged — even shoplifters. More than 10 U.S. states have followed suit.

Currently in Canada, only offenders convicted of serious crimes such as murder or sexual assault are forced to provide a blood sample for the DNA data bank in Ottawa.

Blair said taking samples when people are charged with serious crimes would allow police to immediately check for matches to DNA samples from unsolved crimes.

"There are cases where we have charged a guy with a primary (serious) offence and it takes three years to get to a conviction. What’s he doing on the street during that time? If we were taking DNA at the time of a charge and he was matched to a prior crime, he wouldn’t be in a position to go out for several years (and) commit more crimes."

There are now more than 40,000 DNA samples from crime scenes in the Canadian database — many from unsolved cases. But taking samples when people are charged inevitably means the DNA of innocent people will be catalogued.

"Where do you draw the line?" asked criminal defence lawyer James Lockyer, who regularly represents the wrongfully convicted.

"You could, on the basis of the public interest, justify rounding up the entire population and securing a DNA sample."

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