Next time you hear somebody question the value of retaining DNA profiles from those arrested but not convicted, remember Jeremiah Sheridan. Most of all remember the innocent woman he attacked.
There is undoubtedly a potential benefit to law enforcement from the retention of DNA samples taken from innocent people; in some cases, it will be a significant benefit. That, in and of itself, is no more than persuasive. It would be potentially helpful to law enforcement to have many things. A night curfew, for example, or a ban on alcohol. Both of these things would assist with the maintenance of general order tremendously – certainly, more than the retention of DNA samples from innocent people. Both such policies would drive down crime. And yet this government has not enacted them. Does this mean that Gordon Brown is “soft on rapists”?
I think not. I’d like to think that he and his government had considered such policies and discounted them, despite their potential crime reduction influence, because in their draconian nature their authoritarian cost outweighs their law enforcement benefit – because they are outwith the proper relationship between the individual and the state.
And so to DNA samples taken from people convicted of no offence.
I would agree with Guy Aitchison over at Our Kingdom:
am I the only one who finds Brown's references to the Sheridan case distasteful? As though the mere invocation of a horrific case such as this trumps any argument about privacy and human rights. We all know where those kind of arguments lead and it's not a road most of us would care to tread down. Consider also the rank hypocrisy of telling Cameron "you don't tackle the fear of crime by cultivating it" moments after raising the grisly Sheridan case. If someone can offer a better example of scare-mongering to deflect principled arguments, I'd be interested to see it.
(Emphasis on the rule by lynch mob point added)
I have written about DNA evidence previously on this site and elsewhere but, in summary (and putting aside the serious question about the “certainty” some people falsely think exists with DNA evidence, which is often wrong and is leading to fewer convictions as more samples are added), it is the hard but unavoidable side of my position that there will be some crimes that go undetected as a result of not using all evidence, however obtained. I accept that as the price of my position. Not because I like crime - of course - but because I'm honest about the ramifications of my position. Before the authoritarians weigh in with hyperbole, I accept the extremes that people sometimes like to play with in response to such statements, too - I accept that I or someone I love could be a victim of a terrible crime which goes undetected because of it. As Aitchison points out - scaremongering doesn't change the principle. Conviction rates would be much higher and we'd be "safer" if we had to report our whereabouts to the authorities every day – but we don’t think that that’s a reasonable thing to require of citizens in this, a hopefully still free country.
Because it suits him to, Brown commits the simple fallacy of considering the merit of solving the specific, small number of crimes he says can be solved by DNA evidence (and the potential of solving those which remain unsolved), without weighing against that undoubted merit the harm that comes from constantly monitoring a million or more people living in this country entitled to live without being suspected as criminals, the harm that comes from the surveillance of society en masse without end and from the forced surrender of the most basic aspect of ourselves - our genetic make-up - to the state, when we have done nothing wrong.
There is, of course, a practical point, too. Millions of man-hours wasted on maintaining the database and poring without benefit over samples cannot be portrayed in a neat anecdote, and neither can the budget it soaks up, but the inefficacy of law enforcement spending its time and money doing so ought to be apparent – and the logical result of that should be considered too – that many cases might have been solved if proper policing had been used during those finite man-hours, or bought with those pounds, instead.
But really, it’s a question of principle. It’s a question of where one draws the line. Ultimately, some crimes going unsolved is the price we pay to live in a free society.