Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Saturday 8 September 2007

DNA samples and fingerprints - you can get them back ...

... at least it seems you can if you live in the area policed by Northern Constabulary in Scotland. I wrote recently about the latest developments in the Alistair Wilson murder inquiry. As mentioned in the 1st and 2nd updates to my post linked above, I was visited in July by a couple of police officers who took DNA swabs and fingerprint samples, together with a polaroid photograph and had later confirmation that as my DNA profile did not match the remaining unidentified profile recovered at the crime scene it had been eliminated from their inquiry.

After thinking for a week about the precise content of the letter I had received from Northern Constabulary, I decided to write to the Chief Constable to clarify the position and to request confirmation that both my DNA samples and fingerprint samples had been not only eliminated from the inquiry, but destroyed. I have now had a letter back from the Senior Investigating Officer in the Alistair Wilson murder inquiry confirming that my DNA samples have been destroyed and that the resultant profile has been removed from the database; the fingeprints I provided them with and the polaroid photograph they took have also been returned to me. I am pleased that a polite, but pointed, request by me has met with a civilised and reasonable response. Copies of my exchange of correspondence with Northern Constabulary may be viewed here. From something I heard in the media last week, I understand that the way in which the police treat DNA samples and fingerprints they take in the course of their work is somewhat different in England and Wales than it is in Scotland; I understand that the police in England and Wales retain DNA samples and fingerprints for some years, perhaps even indefinitely, if they feel they can get away with it.

Of course, whilst I am happy that the Scottish Executive (or as some would have us call it, the Scottish Government) has always (and not just since May 2007) adopted a somewhat different stance than the UK Home Office in this matter, I am under no illusion that we live in Scotland in an entirely beneficent society; it is a fact that my fingerprints and the polaroid photograph had not actually been destroyed when I received the letter dated 17 August 2007 from Northern Constabulary, otherwise it would not have been possible to return them to me now! If I had not requested information about their fate it is very likely that that they would have remained on file indefinitely and not been destroyed.

The second letter from Northern Constabulary dated 5 September 2007 states that my DNA samples have been destroyed and the profile eliminated from the database; I must take it on trust that this has happened (and I am prepared to do this); however, it is not entirely clear that this occurred at the time their first letter was written (17 August 2007) or only after they received my letter dated 27 August 2007.

Now that I have received back the fingerprints I provided (and the two sheets on which they were recorded) I have been able to confirm what it was I actually gave my consent for. There were two 'consent' options on the form I signed and the Consent "B" option, which I signed, reads:

In connection only with the investigation and prosecution of the offence for which the samples were taken. Namely...(Murder of Alistair Wilson)... at the conclusion of which my data will be removed and destroyed.

Signed ______________ Witnessed by______________ Date___________

- it is quite clear that this had not happened in respect of my fingerprints. In fact the precise wording of the consent above seems ambiguous; I think it is designed to re-assure cranks like me who are concerned about such mundane matters as 'civil liberties' that their data will be eliminated (and destroyed) when it is established that a person is unconnected with the case, but what it actually says is that such elimination and destruction will occur only when the offence for which they were taken, in this case a murder, is concluded; from what I understand a murder file is never closed until the case is solved - the much older (1976) Renee Macrae case in Inverness is a case in point. Whether the wording of the Consent "B" option is the result of carefully constructed artifice, or merely the deficient grammar and syntax often seen in official correspondence, is anyone's guess, but the message I take from this whole experience is that the police, and officialdom in general, must be watched carefully and reminded once in a while of what the limits are on what they may do. Whilst I am prepared to 'trust' the police, I do not intend at a personal level to sleepwalk into a dictatorship.

I imagine my request for clarification about the fate of the samples I provided in this case was somewhat unusual, but I would hope not entirely unique. Any other resident of Nairn who has recently provided the police with samples in the Alistair Wilson inquiry would be well advised, in my opinion, to seek similar clarification from Northern Constabulary, even when they are advised that they have been 'eliminated' from the inquiry. Don't assume anything.

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