Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE National Assembly is considering a law that will enable the police to collect DNA from all suspects arrested for any crime — a step that will make South Africa the first African country to establish a nationwide offender DNA database to fight crime.

DNA has become the fingerprinting and photographing procedure of the future.

Many countries, however, restrict police to fingerprinting, which cannot rival the accuracy of DNA technology.

Offender DNA databases are now used in 45 countries, including the US, Canada, China, Russia, Australia and most European states.

DNA is being increasingly used to solve difficult cases and to link suspects to other crimes, most notably serial crimes.

At the same time, DNA databases are used to exonerate wrongfully convicted and imprisoned people.

US forensic DNA specialist Dr Arthur Eisenberg says decisions to set up offender DNA databases are controlled by top officials and legislative entities that are, unfortunately, taking a long time to get the ball rolling.

"DNA places suspects at the crime scene without doubt because it can be extracted from several things — from a hair fibre, to sweat drops, to skin dust or flake, to blood.

"It is not restricted, like a fingerprint which requires a criminal to have used their hands to contact something," he says.

Dr Eisenberg says some governments are considering not only a DNA database for criminals, but the establishment of a DNA database for all citizens.

He says that would assist in many ways, such as identifying missing persons and combating human trafficking.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, at least 200,000 women and children become victims of human trafficking annually, and human trafficking accounts for one-third of global crimes.

Maj-Gen Adeline Shezi, head of quality management in the South African Police Service’s forensic unit, says the progress of the DNA Collection Bill depends on a costing exercise.

"We are looking at the implications of costs.

"This is likely to involve things such as training of officers, the establishment of secure databank facilities and the necessary systems and processing kits that would be required to start collecting the DNA data from accused persons (and) convicted prisoners," she says.

The law empowers police to take fingerprints and body-prints for investigation purposes, and they may do so without a warrant provided they can show reasonable suspicion.

Police may also store fingerprints on conviction of a suspect for future comparison.

However the law requires them to destroy the data if a person is found not guilty.

Dr Eisenberg says South Africa must learn from Brazil, which rejected legislation allowing DNA to be taken from every convicted offender. One such offender was released from prison in 2008 for a violent crime conviction without his DNA taken. He went on to rape and murder five women in Belo Horizonte in 2009, leaving DNA at all crime scenes.

"Four of the five murders could have been prevented if the Brazilian Congress had passed legislation," he says.

He says the families of victims of sexual crimes then campaigned for a national DNA database of arrested and convicted criminals. President Dilma Rousseff signed the DNA Database Law in May last year.

He says the lesson from US states such as Virginia, which was the first to pass the law in 1990, was that if DNA collection was restricted to suspects of violent crimes and excluded suspects of minor crimes, about 85% of criminals later linked to serious crimes would have been missed. Research found that about 39% of violent crimes solved were perpetrated by individuals with previous convictions for property crimes, such as house breaking.

"We believe DNA databanks are most effective if enabled to include the data of all offenders and all forms of crimes. This is because offenders usually graduate from petty crime to serious crime," he says.