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Opposition to the forensic use of DNA in France: the jurisdiction and veridiction effects

Abstract

The use of genetic databases by the police and justice system has risen dramatically over the last 20 years, particularly in France, which has the second largest database in Europe. In such a context, this article analyses the legal and scientific effects of the forensic use of DNA on the formation of individuals’ (bio)identities in France. More specifically, we adopt a line of investigation that builds out from forms of resistance to genetic databases. Our methodology draws on a series of interviews and observations of legal proceedings against people who have refused to give DNA samples. In the first part of this text, we focus on the ‘jurisdiction effects’ of the DNA database being expanded to populations, showing that legal classifications (offender, suspect, etc.) constitute a key issue for these opponents. We then go on to analyse the ‘veridiction effects’ at work among social actors, in terms of the medical information/information related to origin that is conveyed (or not) by DNA profiles. In conclusion, we show that genetic analyses applied in a criminal context to populations, rather than simply individuals, shift (bio)identities through these dual effects, which form the basis of opponents’ resistance to genetic databases.

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Notes

  1. The Traitement d’Antécédents Judiciaires or Judicial History Application (TAJ) is the widest and most commonly used database. At the end of March 2016, the TAJ included 15.6 million files on suspected individuals (cf. Report of the Court of Auditors, 15 February 2017). As for the French fingerprint database, the Fichier automatisé des empreintes digitales (FAED), in October 2018 it included 6.2 million registered individuals and 220,000 traces (cf. Rapport d’information sur les fichiers mis à la disposition des forces de sécurité, 2018).

  2. Article 706-55 of the Penal Procedure Code (Code de Procédure Pénale).

  3. The law describes “serious or corresponding evidence” making it “probable” that the individuals have committed an offence covered under the scope of the FNAEG (article 706-54 paragraph 2 of the Penal Procedure Code).

  4. Cf. Questions to the Government no. 68,468, 12 January 2010, Response of 6 April 2010; no. 6423, 9 October 2012, Response of 12 February 2013; no. 40427, 22 October 2013, Response of 5 August 2014; no. 79728, 19 May 2015, Response of 8 December 2015. According to a senior civil servant from the Ministry of Justice, these figures are questionable since individuals enter the database as suspects, and their file is not always updated when they are convicted. However, the overwhelming majority of individuals in the database have not been convicted.

  5. Circular of 9 July 2008 from the Ministry of Justice CRIM-PJ no. 08-28.H5. According to this circular, “regarding minors over the age of 13, the advisability of taking a sample must be carefully assessed, following consultation between the judicial police and the prosecution service”.

  6. Personal communication from the forensic science department of the police services.

  7. Rapport d’information sur les fichiers mis à la disposition des forces de sécurité (2018).

  8. Article 706-54 of the Penal Procedure Code.

  9. Source: personal communication from a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice.

  10. Article 706-54 of the Penal Procedure Code.

  11. The types of genetic markers used for DNA profiles are called Short Tandem Repeats (STR). As the name suggests, they are short sequences of repeated DNA that experts distinguish by size.

  12. The practices and discourses of police officers and gendarmes have been analysed in another study (Vailly and Krikorian 2018).

  13. The law of 18 March 2003 regarding internal security made the refusal to give a DNA sample an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 15,000 euros and a 1-year prison sentence for suspected individuals, to be doubled in the case of convicted individuals.

  14. Circulars of 27 July 2004 and 9 July 2008 from the French Ministry of Justice CRIM-PJ no. 08-28.H5.

  15. Statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice.

  16. This confirms that the easier a system of categorisation is to use, and the broader it is (here spanning innocent, suspected and guilty individuals), the less visible it is (Bowker and Star 2000).

  17. This lawyer uses the term “whistleblowers” for opponents who alert public opinion to what they consider to be a danger or a problem (police use of databases, advertising, GM crops, etc.).

  18. While emphasising that this argument was seldom used during our interviews, it should be noted that the larger the database, the more likely comparison errors (false-positive matches) between a trace and a suspect are to occur. This means that individuals in a database are more likely than individuals not in a database to be victims of a false-positive match.

  19. Borrowing the term used by Petryna (2002) to describe people exposed to radiation from Chernobyl, Rose (2007) talks about a “biological citizenship” encompassing projects that are led by citizens and linked to their biological existence as human beings. Due to the dimension of choice and responsibility of actors expressed by this concept, it primarily applies in a medical context (prenatal testing, etc.).

  20. There are two points to note here: (1) In the S. and Marper v The United Kingdom case, the court held that the blanket and indiscriminate retention of DNA profiles and the samples of suspected individuals—as was the case in the UK until the ECHR's judgment—was, in the context of state intrusion into the private life of an individual, in contradiction with the need for proportionality between an offence committed and the request for a DNA sample (we recall that the DNA samples of identified individuals, in France, are not retained). Case of S. and Marper v. The United Kingdom. Judgment of 4 December 2008. Accessed July 24 2016. https://www.coe.int/t/dghl/standardsetting/dataprotection/Judgments/S.%20AND%20MARPER%20c.%20ROYAUME%20UNI%20fr.pdf; and (2) These opponents also base their arguments on the 2013 condemnation of France by the ECHR with regard to its physical fingerprint database (the Fichier Automatisé des Empreintes Digitales or FAED) in a way which could be transposed to the FNAEG, and this conviction rested on the concept of proportionality and private life in exactly the same terms as those of the Marper judgment. Case of M.K. v France. Judgment of 18 July 2013. Several organisations, including the SM, the LDH and the SAF, also questioned the Ministry of Justice in this regard in 2013.

  21. National DNA database strategy Report. Annual Report. 2013–2014 Home Office. Cf. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-dna-database-annual-report-2013-to-2014. Accessed 9 October 2017.

  22. QPC decision no. 2010–2025 of 16 September 2010.

  23. CEDH 2015 press release of 22 June 2017 (http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng-press#{%22itemid%22:[%22003-5758132-7319608%22]}. Accessed 22 August 2017).

  24. "Fichage génétique: la France toujours dans l’illégalité", Jérôme Hourdeaux, Mediapart 20 April 2018.

  25. Statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice (2003-2013).

  26. Incidentally, while there is a high proportion of convictions for refusing to give a sample, sentences are generally light. They usually consist of fines or suspended sentences, or sometimes adjusted sentences, since judges quite clearly treat individuals who refuse a DNA sample differently when they are convicted for a sexual crime compared to a minor offence. Although judges apply the law strictly, the rather symbolic nature of some penalties (100 euros) indicates that they may not be entirely at ease with these borderline cases, particularly where the original charge has been dropped but the charge against the DNA refusal pursued.

  27. Article 706-54 (Paragraph 5) of the Penal Procedure Code.

  28. Since August 2018, the numbers of markers studied has been fixed at 21 as per the Decree of 10 August 2015.

  29. See note 11.

  30. Through a study of the United Kingdom’s genetic database, Skinner (2011) reveals a policy centred on the construction and use of racial data, demonstrating the recurrent discussion of the validity and legitimacy of the use of so-called ethnic or racial categories.

  31. For a study of the sensitivity of this topic and its legal context in France, in regard to other practices involving the police and legal system, see (Vailly 2017).

  32. See the following judgments for details: Jugement du Tribunal de Grande Instance de Senlis du 21 mars 2012, Arrêt de la Cour de cassation du 19 juin 2012, Jugement en Appel du Tribunal de Grande Instance de Senlis du 26 novembre 2012, Jugement de la Cour d’Appel d’Amiens du 13 juin 2014, Arrêt de la Cour de cassation du 10 juin 2015.

  33. See the judgment Arrêt de la Cour de cassation du 10 juin 2015.

  34. “Ils ont refusé de donner leur ADN", Louise Fessard, Mediapart, 19 September 2011.

  35. “Les apprentis sorciers du fichage ethnique", Anonymous, L’Express, 28 March 2007.

  36. “Ils ont refusé de donner leur ADN", Louise Fessard, Mediapart, 19 September 2011.

  37. The Oversight Committee and the Interministerial Committee responsible for the FNAEG (Vailly and Krikorian 2018) have not produced their own public reports on these issues.

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Acknowledgements

This research benefited from funding from the French National Research Agency (contract: ANR-14-CE29-0014, Project "Fichiers et témoins génétiques: généalogie, enjeux sociaux, circulation", acronym FiTeGe, coordinator: Joëlle Vailly). We are grateful to Amade M'charek and Peter Wade for their perfect coordination of this special issue. We also extend our thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their critical reading. This text was translated by Cadenza.

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Vailly, J., Bouagga, Y. Opposition to the forensic use of DNA in France: the jurisdiction and veridiction effects. BioSocieties 15, 394–419 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-019-00150-y

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Keywords

  • Genetics
  • Forensics
  • Resistance
  • Identity
  • Anthropology
  • France