DNA Sampling for Minor Crimes: The Accuracy of Establishing the Sweet-Wrapper Offenders

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

Remember a time when your mum told you not to throw your sweet wrappers onto the street? She was trying to cultivate a strong civic sense in you, make you a good citizen and teach you that others should not have to pick up after you. Law enforcement officials will probably agree with these reasons for not littering. But if you violate the law by letting your wrappers fall onto the street, it is more than just a scolding from your mum that you fear. This week, police officers have asked that they be given the right to obtain DNA samples without consent from those who commit these minor, petty crimes. Currently, samples can only be taken without consent from those who commit or are suspected of committing more serious crimes, i.e., crimes that are punishable by imprisonment.

To collect someone's DNA and store it on a database seems unnecessary if all that the offender has done is litter the street. Of course, people ought not to litter the street but, as with all offences, the punishment ought to fit the crime. To treat the culprit of a minor crime in a way akin to the manner in which a culprit of a serious offence is treated seems unreasonable. But is this in fact what DNA sampling is doing or is it merely linking the offender to the crime?

One of the advantages of DNA sampling is that it can help establish accuracy. Regardless of the crime in question, or even the category of crime, it is nice to be able to link the doer to the deed. If I throw my sweet wrappers onto the street, ideally there ought to be a clear, well-established link between my action, i.e., the throwing of the sweet wrapper, and me, i.e., the person who performed the action. This does not mean that my crime is necessarily equivalent to any other crime for which a DNA sample is taken without consent. What it does mean is that by taking a sample of my DNA, my action could be traced to me more accurately. While the method used on me to confirm my identity and my link to the crime is the same as is used in the case of more serious crimes, the punishment will be different. I am unlikely to go to prison for littering the street. Using the same method for determining this link does not mean that the littering of a street is equivalent in any way to serious crime.

Although the taking of these DNA samples will link deed to doer more accurately than is now possible, it is still important to determine the moral permissibility of obtaining these samples without consent. That the samples could increase accuracy is clear; that it is morally permissible to obtain them without consent, less clear.

Informed consent is important but it is not overriding of all moral considerations. If public interest is at stake and consent is not obtainable, it might be morally permissible to carry out a procedure even without it. Consider other potential violations of privacy that are carried out without consent. Everyday, when we leave home, we are gazed at by cameras that watch us as we go about our daily business. Most of us are not committing crimes so the cameras do not need to watch us but ironically, without watching us, it cannot be known that we are not committing crimes. Likewise, airport security is intended at establishing the same goal: crime prevention and detection. Most of us do not violate security regulations and do not need to have ourselves and our luggage checked but we give up the freedom and convenience of not being checked so that all of us remain safe.

Even though DNA sampling can help establish the accuracy of a crime, one must ask whether it needs to establish accuracy in the case of petty crime. Regardless of how we feel about airport security or CCTV cameras, they exist to protect the public from harm so great that violations of consent and privacy are arguably justifiable. Similarly, DNA sampling without consent for serious crimes is also justifiable because there is much at stake in terms of what the offender is capable of doing and how he ought to be prevented from offending further. However, justifications for compromising consent and violating individual privacy require more than just an aesthetically displeasing street strewn with sweet wrappers. Although DNA sampling will help establish the accuracy of the offenders of such petty crimes, one must ask what exactly we would achieve at the cost of violating privacy and consent, not to mention manpower and resources.

We are lucky to have the technology that enables DNA sampling and we ought to use it to establish accuracy in the context of serious crime. Overusing it would lead to misuse and have moral and practical implications that might be difficult to resolve. It is important to save this technology for crimes that cause more harm than does mere street litter. If we use DNA sampling for every petty crime, we may soon be out of resources for the serious ones. And that would come at a time when, after sampling for petty crimes, we would have committed many violations of privacy and consent, which, without good reason, would be moral crimes in and of themselves.