DNA bank under attack
Police push for more ability to 'harvest' samples
Others fear access to private information
Aug. 10, 2004BETSY POWELL
When shoplifter John Wood was arrested in England for stealing toothpaste, batteries and a jar of pasta sauce in 2001, detectives took a routine mouth swab and checked it against the U.K.'s National DNA Database.
A match was made linking Wood to a brutal attack on two sisters, age 9 and 11, in 1988. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years.
Set up in 1995, the U.K. database has become the world's largest, holding DNA profiles of 2.1 million people after police were given the green light to take a sample from anyone suspected, arrested or charged with a crime.
Their profile remains on the database whether or not they are convicted in court.
Supporters say it is a success, with more than 3,000 matches a month. Critics argue it violates civil liberties and gives the police — and potentially others — access to too much information about too many people.
"Many people are arrested and charged with criminal offences who never are found guilty, and that population doesn't deserve, as a starting point, to be in any data bank," says Toronto defence lawyer Steven Skurka, a former vice-president and director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association.
Voices: DNA fingerprints
The Toronto Police Service is making the case that DNA — every person's unique biological signature — should be taken from all suspects at the time of arrest on Criminal Code charges. Right now, judges can order those convicted of a range of violent offences to provide samples. Law enforcement officers are also allowed to take DNA samples from suspects under warrant.
Since its inception in 2000, Canada's National DNA Data Bank, run by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has accumulated 62,665 profiles of convicted offenders.
Toronto police have held two media briefings in as many days to reinforce their position: The more samples in the bank, the better the chance of a match, which may lead to solving more cases.
Chief Julian Fantino and Staff Inspector Bruce Smollet have pointed to cases such as last weekend's arrest of a 20-year-old Aurora man on numerous charges in the June 26 abduction of a 17-year-old girl. The man had given a DNA sample after being convicted July 4 of a robbery in York Region. DNA was found under the victim's fingernails.
"What we are looking for is an enhanced ability to retrieve or harvest DNA samples at the front end of cases where we arrest people," Fantino said. "It is the same thing we do for fingerprints."
A spokesperson for Anne McLellan, minister of public safety and emergency preparedess, has already said the government is not contemplating changes to DNA collection.
Yet nobody, police officials argue, is challenging the right of police to take fingerprints at the time of arrests, and DNA is considered a more reliable way to identify criminals and clear people falsely accused of crimes.
But pressing your fingertips into ink is not the same as providing a mouth swab, hair or blood sample that contains a wealth of data some fear could be used for something other than forensic DNA analysis, though the policy of the RCMP's Forensic Laboratory Services is not to use them for anything other than forensic identification.
"You can get pre-disposition to disease, for example, which you can't get from a regular fingerprint," said William Davidson, a molecular genetics professor at Simon Fraser University. He belongs to the National DNA Data Bank Advisory Committee but stressed he was offering his personal views, not those of the committee.
Concerns have been raised about "who has access to the DNA information, to the DNA, what tests could be carried out on that DNA other than DNA fingerprinting for personal identification. The laws in Canada are very strict and prescriptive in this," he said.
Davidson said yesterday if DNA evidence is obtained as "a tool that gives leads to police agencies ... (that) have to be followed up and corroborated by other forms of evidence, then I don't think the general public should have anything to fear from such a database."
There are probably good reasons, he added, to consider allowing DNA samples "at the time of conviction of essentially any crime."But Skurka said Parliament has crafted "a very balanced provision to allow for only the most serious offenders to enter the data bank. Parliament gave this matter a considerable amount of thought, they were alert to constitutional issues, they were alert to privacy issues and public safety issues, and the balance that they struck was a good one and should be the enduring system that exists in a democratic society, not the one that Chief (Julian) Fantino is advocating, which is far removed from that."
Additional articles by Betsy Powell