Giving innocent people back their DNA helps rapists, says Gordon Brown

Labour want innocent people kept on the DNA database regardless of privacy, human rights and the integrity of our legal system.
Guy Aitchison
1 March 2010

I recently blogged how a shameless Labour party is making Tory plans to remove innocent people's DNA from police databases, in compliance with the European Court's ruling, one of their central lines of attack.

Now, via Joe Murphy, at the Evening Standard, we learn that Brown has taken this one step further accusing those who want a proportionate system of DNA retention, which respects the right of innocent people not to have their genetic material on criminal databases, of playing into the hands of rapists:

He cited the case of Jeremiah Sheridan who raped a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy sufferer in her home 19 years ago and was last year convicted thanks to DNA samples.

“Next time you hear somebody question the value of retaining DNA profiles from those arrested but not convicted, remember Jeremiah Sheridan,” he said. “Most of all remember the innocent woman he attacked.”

Speaking to police in Reading, he also accused the Tory leader over his use of crime statistics, saying: “You don't tackle the fear of crime by cultivating it, by ramping up a public sense of panic, by abusing the figures and claiming our society is broken.”

Note, again, the sinister use of language. Whilst Chris Sims, of ACPO, spoke of "unconvicted" people, Brown talks of "those arrested but not convicted". The word "innocent" doesn't feature in their vocabulary. Because some people who have been arrested and not convicted go onto commit a crime, we should act as though all of them will.

There's two possible claims that could support such an approach to DNA retention. Either he's arguing "there's no smoke without fire", in which case anyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system is presumed guilty of something orother and should be treated as such. Or we are all suspects, whether or not we have come into contact with criminal justice, and keeping arrested people's DNA is simply the most straight-forward way of harvesting as much DNA as possible from the general population (in the absence of the courage to argue for blanket DNA collection and retention).

Neither of these propositions is attractive in my view and neither is compatible with a free society which maintains a proper legal distinction between guilt and innocence. Even if you maintain that handing over DNA to the state is no big deal, you have to worry about the corrosive effect Brown's arguments will have on our legal system as a whole. Law cannot be sealed and self-contained, its effects limited to the particular issues addressed in its provisions. It should instead be seen as an interlocking web, underpinned by values and principles that shape and guide the whole. Tug at one thread and the whole thing starts to unravel. Just look how the mentality behind these databases and surveillance techniques extends to the treatment of protesters and photographers, and countless other categories of people who must now prove themselves to the state.

In addition, 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.

And to distasteful and hypocritical, it seems, we can also add misleading. According to David Davis, Brown’s arguments on DNA show that "yet again he doesn't have the first idea" on the issue. He told Paul Waugh the Tories plan to retain a DNA database of "past cases" such as Sheridan's.

"That way all such matches can be picked up at the point of arrest, without the need for expensive cold case teams to plough through a whole database of innocent people. Were this the situation now, Sheridan would have been brought to justice three years earlier than he eventually was.

"There are a number of ways of improving the relatively ineffective and shoddy system which we now have which do not involve turning innocent people into suspects."

The Cabinet has apprently decided that DNA is the Tories’ achilles heel. They want to deflect serious arguments about liberty and the judgement of the European Court by invoking horrific cases. In doing so they are prepared to abandon the idea of innocence arguing for ideas and processes that endanger the whole fabric of our legal system. They should not be allowed to get away with it.

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