Concerns Regarding DNA Law

Posted by Bhairav Acharya at Oct 09, 2013 09:40 PM |
Recently, a long government process to draft a law to permit the collection, processing, profiling, use and storage of human DNA is nearing conclusion. There are several concerns with this government effort. Below, we present broad-level issues to be kept in mind while dealing with DNA law.

Background

The Department of Biotechnology released, in 29 April 2012, a working draft of a proposed Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2012 ("DBT Bill") for public comments. The draft reveals an effort to (i) permit the collection of human blood, tissue and other samples for the purpose of creating DNA profiles, (ii) license private laboratories that create and store the profiles, (iii) store the DNA samples and profiles in various large databanks in a number of indices, and (iv) permit the use of the completed DNA profiles in scientific research and law enforcement. The regulation of human DNA profiling is of significant importance to the efficacy of law enforcement and the criminal justice system and correspondingly has a deep impact on the freedoms of ordinary citizens from profiling and monitoring. Below, we highlight five important concerns to bear in mind before drafting and implementing DNA legislation.

Primary Issues

Purpose of DNA Profiling

DNA  profiling  serves  two broad  purposes – (i) forensic – to establish  unique  identity  of a person in the criminal justice system; and, (ii) research – to understand human genetics and its contribution  to  anthropology, biology  and  other  sciences.  These  two  purposes have  very different approaches  to DNA  profiling and  the  issues and  concerns attendant on them vary accordingly. Forensic DNA profiling is undertaken to afford either party in a criminal trial a better  possibility  of  adducing corroborative evidence to  prosecute,  or to  defend, an alleged offence. DNA, like fingerprints, is a biometric estimation of the individuality of a person. By itself, in the same manner that fingerprint evidence is only proof of the presence of a person at a particular place and not proof of the commission of a crime, DNA is merely corroborative evidence  and cannot,  on its  own  strength,  result  in a conviction  or  acquittal  of  an  offence. Therefore, DNA  and fingerprints,  and the  process  by which they  are  collected and  used as evidence, should be broadly similar.

Procedural Integrity

Forensic DNA profiling results from biological source material that is usually collected from crime scenes or forcibly from offenders and convicts. Biological source material found at a crime scene is very rarely non-contaminated and the procedure by which it is collected and its integrity ensured is of primary legislative importance. To avoid the danger of contaminated crime scene evidence being introduced in the criminal justice system to pervert the course of justice, it is crucial to ensure that DNA is collected only from intact human cells and not from compromised genetic material. Therefore, if the biological source material found at a crime scene  does  not  contain  at  least  one  intact  human  cell,  the  whole  of  the biological  source material should be destroyed to prevent the possibility of compromised genetic material being collected to  yield  inconclusive results.  Adherence  to  this  basic  principle  will  obviate  the possibility  of  partial  matches  of  DNA  profiles  and  the  resulting  controversy  and  confusion that ensues.

Conditions of Collection

In India, the taking of fingerprints is chiefly governed by the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 ("Prisoners Act") and section 73 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 ("Evidence Act"). The Prisoners Act permits  the forcible taking of  fingerprints from convicts and  suspects in certain  conditions.  The Evidence  Act,  in  addition,  permits  courts  to  require  the  taking  of fingerprints  for  the  forensic  purpose  of  establishing  unique  identity  in  a  criminal  trial. No
provisions exist for consensual taking of fingerprints, presumably because of the danger of self-incrimination and general privacy concerns. Since, as discussed earlier, fingerprints and DNA are  biometric  measurements  that  should  be treated  equally to the  extent possible, the conditions for the collection of DNA should be similar to those for the taking of fingerprints.Accordingly,  there  should  be  no  legal  provisions  that  enable  other  kinds  of  collection, including from volunteers and innocent people.

Retention of DNA

As  a  general  rule applicable  in  India,  the  retention  of  biometric  measurements  must  be supported  by  a  clear  purpose  that  is  legitimate, judicially  sanctioned  and  transparent. The Prisoners Act, which permits the forcible taking of fingerprints from convicts, also mandates the destruction of these fingerprints when the person is acquitted or discharged. The indefinite collection  of  biometric  measurements  of people  is  dangerous,  susceptible  to  abuse  and invasive of civil rights. Therefore, once lawfully collected from crime scenes and offenders, their DNA profiles must  be  retained  in  strictly  controlled  databases with  highly  restricted access for the forensic purpose of law enforcement only. DNA should not be held in databases that allow non-forensic use. Further, the indices within these databases should be watertight and exclusive of each other.

DNA Laboratories

The process by which DNA profiles are created from biological source material is of critical importance. Because of the evidentiary value of DNA profiles, the laboratories in which these profiles  are  created  must  be  properly  licensed, professionally  managed  and manned  by competent  and  impartial  personnel.  Therefore,  the  process  by  which  DNA laboratories  are licensed and permitted to operate is significant.

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