On the Hunt for DNA

Police directive encouraged DNA collection for non-felonies

2020.07.01 18:53 Makoto Watanabe

3 min read

The National Police Agency neglected to legislate its suspect DNA database, despite lawyers from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations stressing the need for a legal framework to ensure that DNA collection is limited to felonies and that DNA is deleted from the database if an individual is not prosecuted.

At first, Japan’s database was a far cry from its international counterparts, some of which contained over a million DNA profiles. In 2012, the NPA released a directive aiming to change that.

DNA data quadruples following directive

The directive “Initiative for the significant expansion of the DNA database (NPA Criminal Identification, No.906)” was sent to police across Japan on September 10, 2012.

Its main points were as follows.

“DNA can be collected for crimes other than felonies such as rape, etc.”

“Proactively collect DNA, even if a suspect is not arrested.”

In short, the NPA asked police to broaden the scope of DNA collection in order to increase the number of profiles in the database — in direct opposition to the JFBA’s call for restraint.

Following the directive, the database swelled with new entries. It had contained under 300,000 DNA profiles in 2012. By 2019, there were roughly 1.2 million.

“I was scared, surrounded by cops”

As a result of the NPA greenlighting general DNA collection, non-felony offences now constitute 95% of the database’s 1.2 million profiles.

A man in his 20s living in the Tokyo metropolitan area represents one such case.

One summer evening in 2018, the man went drinking with a friend. He took the last train of the night to the station nearest his house. As he made his way home, the man helped himself to someone’s unlocked bicycle.

A police officer on a motorcycle stopped him before he got far. The officer called for backup. They were joined by a police car, into the back seat of which went the man.

Although he thought he was just being taken to a police box, they were bound for the station. After questioning the man and taking photos and fingerprints, the police proceeded to DNA. A young officer built like a rugby player rubbed the inside of the man’s cheek with a cotton swab, his hands encased in thin, blue gloves.

The man was asked to sign a consent form allowing his DNA to be taken. He was flustered, surrounded by officers. Drunk and exhausted, he signed as directed.

“DNA collection seemed so much like part of the normal process that I didn’t even think about whether or not I could refuse,” the man said.

It was past 5 a.m. by the time he was allowed to go home.

“It was my first time being picked up by the police,” he said. “I was scared, surrounded by cops all of a sudden. I regret what I did, but I don’t think it warranted this kind of response.”

The man was never prosecuted. However, neither was he told his DNA had been deleted from the database.

Former study group member: “It’s easier to take DNA without a law”

We spoke with Yasuyuki Takai, former director of the Special Criminal Affairs Department of the Yokohama District Public Prosecutors Office, on Oct. 25, 2019. Takai had been a member of the “Study Group for Enhancing Investigation Methods and Interrogation” that debated legislating the database.

“It’s easier to take DNA without a law in place,” he said. “And there’s no way the police would happily delete the data they worked so hard to gather. All suspects can do is refuse to have their DNA taken.”

“The police are just proud to have built such a large database,” said Hisashi Kosakai, an attorney who was also a member of the study group. “The probability that DNA taken for a minor offense will someday match DNA found on a proper crime scene is nil. That said, the police will probably think it was all worth it if they get even one hit from their million-profile database.”

(Originally published in Japanese on Nov. 17, 2019. Translation by Annelise Giseburt.)

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