It was late one night in the 1990s. I was sitting in the back seat of a car.
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Should T&T change its DNA to solve crime?
Ian K Ramdhanie, MSc, Principal, CISPS
“Catch the criminals!” is the public’s daily cry. Many say they are crocodile tears now as we’ve become so desensitised. As there are difficulties in getting witnesses to come forward, the police must rely more on scientific evidence to get this done. One such way is through DNA evidence. T&T can be a better society if we embrace the right science much more.
DNA is a molecule that contains our genetic code. Each organism has a different ordering of letters that comprise the DNA. In humans, 99.9 per cent of the DNA sequence is the same. It’s the variations that make each of us unique. The intention is to match a criminal’s DNA to evidence from a crime scene.
In T&T, there’s the 2007 DNA Act. To date, we haven’t fully implemented any or much of it. We need to treat this matter with more urgency. Our crime detection rate will definitely increase as a result of this law. Let’s look at some of its major provisions.
It may surprise many that this law can be applied to the investigation and prosecution of offences before, on, or after it comes into being. It means that persons who committed crimes before 2007 can still be caught via DNA evidence. Why aren’t we pursuing this law with greater speed?
To oversee this law, there is to be established by the President a DNA Board which shall report to the Minister of National Security. The Minister is required to make related reports to Parliament twice a year.
A critical feature is the establishment of a Forensic DNA Databank with the following databases of samples: crime scene, volunteers, protective services, non-intimate samples and intimate samples.
An intimate sample is one from venous blood, urine, semen or other tissue fluid obtained from breaking the skin, pubic hair, dental impression, and a swab taken from part of a person’s genitals or a person’s bodily orifice other than the mouth.
A non-intimate sample is from hair other than pubic hair, from or under a finger or toe nail, a swab from any part of a body other than an intimate sample, saliva, or skin impression.
There are times when samples can be taken without a person’s consent, eg, non-intimate samples can be taken from a person who has been charged with an offence. They can also be taken where a stain derived from a crime scene exists and there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the person was involved in the offence and for believing that forensic DNA analysis could confirm or disprove such suspicion. Also, it can be taken if a person has been convicted of an offence and is imprisoned. These non-intimate samples can be taken by a police officer, a medical doctor, a dentist, or registered nurses and midwives.
Victims of crimes or any other person may volunteer to give samples for forensic DNA analysis to assist investigations. Of course, where the victim is a child or is an incapable person (mental or physical condition), a parent or guardian must give consent and can be there.
Where a police officer believes that an intimate sample from a suspect may be necessary, a first division officer must give permission for him to request a sample. The police officer must show the suspect this permission and seek his authorisation before an intimate sample is taken. A suspect can refuse to give such a sample and may even consult his attorney.
The court can also order an intimate sample be taken, eg, when a child or incapable person is detained, arrested or charged for an offence. There are several factors that the court shall consider before making a decision to order or prevent an intimate sample from being taken. The court is to balance the public interest of obtaining DNA evidence against the public interest of upholding the physical integrity of the individual. The court will give reasons and a time period for the sample to be taken. Important is that reasonable force may be used to take the sample. It’s important to note that both intimate and non-intimate samples can also be taken at psychiatric hospitals.
A forensic data laboratory that does the analysis shall keep the sample for 10 years from when the analysis was done. These labs must be approved by the Minister of National Security and possess international accreditation.
An important person in all of this is the custodian of the databank who’s appointed by the President. If the custodian unlawfully discloses DNA data or commits a range of other offences, on summary conviction he’s liable to a $100,000 fine and seven years imprisonment. The penalties are the same for anyone who commits a list of offences regarding the databank such as gaining unauthorised access, unauthorised modifying information, giving false information as to the existence of DNA profile, tampering with containers with samples, etc.
T&T’s been waiting too long for implementation of this DNA law. Ten years have passed since it was assented. We want its offerings to solve the many crimes that befall us. T&T’s DNA should be one of fast implementation of such good law! Should T&T look to change its DNA to solve crime?