NEARLY one million DNA samples on a national police database may have to be destroyed after their retention was yesterday deemed to breach human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that keeping DNA samples from people with no criminal convictions is an illegal invasion of privacy.
The ruling is a setback for the Home Office and police south of the Border, who have hailed the indefinite retention of DNA profiles from people arrested by police – regardless of whether they are then convicted – as a powerful investigative tool against murder, rape and other crimes.
It means England is likely to be forced to adopt the Scottish system, where police are only allowed to retain samples from people who are not just arrested, but charged and convicted.
However, the ruling could also have implications for Scotland – where ministers are consulting on an expansion of DNA retention to include people who accept fixed-penalty notices for minor offences. A Scottish Government spokesman last night said it would consider whether the judgment had any implications for Scotland.
The decision was based on a case brought by two men from Sheffield, who asked their local police force to remove their DNA from its records.
Michael Marper, 45, was arrested in March 2001 and charged with harassing his partner, but the case was dropped three months later after the two were reconciled. In a separate case, a 19-year-old named in court only as "S" was arrested and charged with attempted robbery in January 2001, when he was 12, but later cleared.
A panel of 17 European judges ruled the two men should not have had their DNA and fingerprints retained by South Yorkshire Police, as neither was convicted of any offence. They said keeping the information "could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society".
They attacked the "blanket and indiscriminate nature" of the power of retention of data in England and Wales.
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said yesterday she was "disappointed" by the decision.
The database may now have to be scaled back following the unanimous judgment. The details of about 4.5 million people are held in England and Wales and one in five of them does not have a current criminal record.
Ms Smith said that the existing law would remain in place while ministers considered the judgment.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said the court "has used human rights principles and common sense to deliver the privacy protection of innocent people that the British government has shamefully failed to".