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Severe penalties for cops who tamper with DNA evidence

Published:Wednesday | December 16, 2015 | 12:01 AM
Tom Tavares Finson, leader of opposition business in the Senate.

THE DNA Evidence Act, 2015, was passed in the Senate last week with 25 amendments after two days of rigorous debate.

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed support for the legislation but called for safeguards to prevent agents of the state from tampering with DNA samples in order to get a conviction or to secure the acquittal of an accused.

In this regard, harsher fines were proposed and accepted by the Senate for police personnel who attempt to pervert the course of justice by tampering with DNA samples in the course of their investigations.

In his contribution to the debate last Thursday, leader of opposition business in the Senate, Tom Tavares-Finson, called for tougher penalties for agents of the state who "knowingly take a sample or generates DNA profile in contravention of the Act".

The law had initially proposed a fine of $1 million or, in default of payment of the fine, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. However, the fine has been increased to $3 million or to imprisonment for a tern not exceeding three years. If the case is tried in a Circuit Court, the accused, on conviction could face a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years.

If an agent of the state swaps a sample or DNA profile with intent to deceive, the penalties have also been increased to $3 million, if convicted in a Resident Magistrate's Court or to a term not exceeding 10 years, if tried in a Circuit Court.

Tavares-Finson had asked his colleagues in the Senate to increase the penalty to a mandatory 15 years' imprisonment. He said this breach of the law could result in an innocent person facing the death penalty or life imprisonment.

"If it is that there is a question of the resident magistrate jurisdiction, I don't have a problem in putting it elsewhere where the person can get 15 years because this is a very serious issue," the opposition senator stressed.

He argued that the punishment should be of such that a person would think twice to corrupt the administration of this act.

"Look at them and attach a sensible penalty which will have the effect of deterring the commission of the offence in the first place and, secondly, establishing a level of confidence in the citizens of Jamaica with this most important piece of legislation," he said.

Few prosecutions

Tavares-Finson said where police personnel have been found in the past to have committed perjury or perverted the course of justice, prosecution of those agents of the state has been "few and far between".

"When you are exposing citizens of this country to agents of the state who have demonstrated in the past that they are prepared to do anything, including committing perjury to get a conviction, you get a certain amount of scepticism," he said.

Justice Minister Senator Mark Golding, who piloted the legislation, agreed with Tavares-Finson that the breaches in this law should attract stiffer fines.

And, Government Senator Lambert Brown wants regulation under the DNA law to specify the exact quantity of blood or other sample taken from an accused.

"We might not be able to say how much must be drawn, but we certainly can say how much was drawn; how many strands of hair were plucked out, because next thing five were plucked out but only four turn up in court, and then one turns up at the crime scene. We have to protect our people while fighting against the criminals who are raping and murdering our people," Brown contended.

The government senator said he was anticipating an increase in the police's clear-up rate with the introduction of the DNA law.

He said the clear-up rates of serious crimes in Jamaica such as murder and rape were too low.

"So often we find guns in areas and nobody is arrested. Will we be able to find DNA material on such firearms?" Brown asked.

"Now having this legislation, and having a database, we will be able to go a step further to see whose DNA is left on the guns who have been murdering our people."