Durham police last week put the final nail in the coffin of the Home Office mantra "nothing to hide, nothing to fear", with a clear announcement that DNA and fingerprinting could harm an individual’s career prospects – even if they are otherwise totally innocent.
The warning came in a press release relating to mephedrone, which began by establishing that the substance remains legal to possess – until the government determines otherwise – but illegal to sell for medicinal purposes.
The release observes that "its chemical formula is one molecule different to ecstasy and as such dealers are claiming is not a controlled substance." This would in fact make mephedrone a different chemical substance from ecstacy – in much the same way that carbon monoxide is not the same as carbon dioxide - and therefore clearly not a controlled substance, irrespective of claims made by dealers.
However, it is in police remarks relating to the consequence of possessing mephedrone that the greatest concerns are to be found. Barnard Castle-based Inspector Kevin Tuck is reported as saying: "In Durham police have taken a stance and anyone found with it will be arrested on suspicion of possession of a banned substance."
He adds: "They will be taken to a police cell, their DNA and fingerprints taken and that arrest, depending upon enquiries, could have serious implications for example on future job applications" (our italics).
We asked Durham police for clarification of what possible serious implications there could be for an individual found in possession of a legal substance who had their fingerprints or DNA taken. It was speculated that perhaps some employers would ask prospective job candidates about details not merely of convictions, but of all contact with police – and therefore having DNA taken could adversely affect job prospects for that reason.
However, we have had no official response to our inquiry and remain as baffled as the Home Office, who are still sticking to their line that DNA testing in and of itself can have no consequence for an individual.
A Home Office spokesman said: "Employment checks are not linked to the DNA database and employers cannot check if a potential employee is on the DNA database.
"As we announced last month in our proposals for DNA retention, the police would be required to remove DNA profiles from the database after six years if the person was not subsequently convicted.
"Under the exceptional case procedure, an individual can apply to their police force to have their DNA removed. This will be decided by the chief constable, and the criteria for that application are for the first time set out in statute in our proposals."
Therefore, the official line continues to be that DNA testing is an innocuous process and, as ever, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear".
Whether the police should have any role at all to play in the regulation of a legal substance is an interesting question: defendants of the police role (pdf) in this would point to the fact that as well as upholding law and order, local police forces are tasked with "keeping the Queen’s peace", as well as "protecting, helping and reassuring the community".
Pending explanation from Durham, however, it would seem to be the case that the belief exists amongst some middle-ranking officers that a DNA test does have consequences; or, if it does not, that there is sufficient uncertainty amongst the general public for the threat of a test to have some weight in enforcing a "stance" taken against a currently legal substance. ®