The Hamilton Spectator
Tuesday, February 18, 1997
page B1

Law in works for DNA anti-crime databank

But an election could derail it, Ottawa cautions

by Janice Tibbetts

OTTAWA (CP) -- A law that would create a DNA databank to allow police to compare genetic fingerprints could be introduced in Parliament as early as next month.

The Liberal cabinet approved the idea a few weeks ago and legislation is being drafted, Solicitor General Herb Gray said yesterday.

"We're on the home stretch", Gray said after a speech to police officers. But he conceded the law might not pass if there's a federal election.

Although Gray is aiming for its introduction by March at the earliest, he said the controversial legislation could also be held up for months as bureaucrats try to make it airtight against possible court challenges.

The prospect of the legislation dying angers police officers, who've been lobbying for the databank for years.

The Canadian Police Association executive, which is in Ottawa on a lobbying blitz, accused Ottawa of foot dragging on its promise.

"They've had all sorts of time", said spokesman Scott Newark.

"If this does not take place (before an election), this association will view that as a betrayal of a promise made."

Police are now allowed to extract DNA sampled from blood and saliva but they're not allowed to store them.

A national registry would enable forces to have a repository of samples to use for comparison, similar to the fingerprinting system.

Police say the databank, which would help them solve a number of murders and violent sexual assaults still on the books, is more crucial than the government's new gun-control law.

"I don't think there's any question in terms of overall public safety", said Newark.

But the DNA sample has touched off a debate over privacy because it could be used to provide further information about donors, including their health status.

Some lawyers have suggested the databank could lead to genetic with hunts and the information could end up in the wrong hands.

Among the contentious privacy and Charter of Rights issues that have held up the legislation is how much information police should be able to store in the databank, said Gray.

"This is new ground we're breaking and in my view the only ones who are going to win through hasty drafting, which leads to legislation that will be struck down by the courts, are the criminals."

Newark said any legislation should have built-in protection against using the sample for anything but crime purposes.

For the purpose of a criminal investigation, blood and saliva is analyzed only for a genetic fingerprint used for identification.

Priscilla de Villiers, a member of a national crime victims' group, said she's baffled over why the debate is holding up the law.

"Every day we do not have the information, we are not preventing future needless harm and hurt", said de Villiers, whose daughter Nina was murdered in Burlington in 1991.

Police say Ottawa should cover the estimated $10-million to $15-million cost to setup a registry instead of charging individual forces.

Gray is working on the legislation with Justice Minister Alan Rock, who said the government is still working out the cost of the registry.

Copyright © 1997 by Canadian Press. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.