SciBlogs

Archive October 2009

DNA law changes in NZ Anna Sandiford Oct 28

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The NZ government passed a law through this morning that allows the Police to collect DNA and fingerprints from any person that they will charge Parliament passes DNA law. This is different from the current situation where only people who are convicted of a crime that carries a sentence of seven years imprisonment or more have their DNA collected.

As I’ve said previously, personally I have no problem with the NZ Police being given greater powers to collect DNA samples from individuals who will be charged with an offence. At present, DNA and fingerprints are collected from everyone who is arrested in England & Wales, regardless of whether or not they are eventually charged. This is currently the subject of heated debate and the government is today in a position of having to make a decision about when and what samples from people who are essentially innocent of any crime are to be removed from the database: see here. Some would say that perhaps the UK has gone too far.

Compared with the UK, the NZ database is relatively small and even with the additional samples being added as the law will now allow, it will remain relatively small. Concern has recently been raised in the UK about whether or not the DNA database has got so big, interpretation is becoming problematic see here — as at 31 March this year, there were DNA profiles from 4.86 million individuals on the database (http://www.npia.police.uk/en/docs/NDNAD07-09-LR.pdf). Particularly from the first link I note that ’there are strong statistical arguments against the application of such a large database in forensics. Not only does the complexity of storing and searching such a large body of data increase substantially with the size of the database, but so too does the probability of errors, duplicates and false entries. Moreover, the chance of getting a false positive match is also much higher, simply due to the vast number of comparisons involved and the percentage of the population who have similar (or identical) DNA fingerprints.’

Cold case reviews in the UK have shown that successful matches can be obtained from people who have previously committed a serious offence and then more recently have had to provide DNA and fingerprints in relation to minor offences such as traffic violations. The beauty of cold case reviews is that DNA can solve crimes that occurred before the use of DNA as a crime fighting tool became widely known. A lot of criminals who committed offences in the 1990s or before probably didn’t even realise that they deposited anything worth collecting at the crime scene. Only the foresight of police and scientists meant that samples were collected and are now available for testing. In NZ, the first case that springs to mind that could have been solved one way or the other if samples had been kept for future analysis is that of David Bain, but samples were not kept and now cannot be analysed.

Overall, I think that if managed correctly and with an eye on what has happened in other countries that have already been along this route, the use of such a DNA database in current and cold cases is potentially of great assistance in solving crimes. It is, however, important that users and interpreters of the database understand and acknowledge any potential failings as the database grows and not blindly accept everything that is suggested by the database. Experience in the UK has told them not to rely solely on DNA hits to successfully prosecute cold cases and I personally am always more comfortable with a multi-disciplinary approach to crime investigation.

Internet browsing by jury members — a criminal offence? Anna Sandiford Oct 26

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Scottish lawyer Donald Findlay QC has suggested it be a criminal offence for jury members to trawl the internet for information about the case on which they are serving – see Veteran QC calls for change in law to protect jurors. He has apparently indicated that the impartiality of jury trials could be hampered by jurors using the internet to research cases in which they are involved. I have no doubt that such browsing occurs – it’s human nature, particularly in high profile cases. I’m not sure whether such a law protects the jury though – surely it should be there to protect justice?
The question then arises: how will it be monitored? Presumably the Police then either would be afforded the power to monitor wi-fi connections in hotels where jurors are sequestered or the power to remotely monitor internet usage of jurors throughout a trial. I understand the need for something to be done to deal with this very real issue but what happens if a juror is caught doing this? Imagine through a long and high profile trial such as those involving Clayton Weatherston, Amanda Knox, terrorists, the difficulties and expense in abandoning a trial and picking a new jury, never mind the physical and mental drain on everyone else who has to remain involved if a trial is abandoned – judges, legal teams, families.
I don’t know the answer but in the digital age, it is a struggle to imagine how internet information (which is often biased or factually incorrect) can successfully be kept from those seeking it.

Personal mobile phone data — nothing’s secret any more… Anna Sandiford Oct 22

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For many years I have refused to upgrade my cellphone and this article just proves me right (I’ll be able to say “told you so” to sooo many people!). Forensic mobile phone work reveals threat to all of us demonstrates just why we should be very concerned about a) how much information we program into our cellphones, b) the amount of information we are carrying about ourselves, most of which we are unaware is being collected and updated practically by the minute, and c) the very real possibility of fraud, or worse. Mobile phones have traditionally been targeted by thieves because of their value. Now, the more tech-savvy thief can target a specific individual to gain access to all kinds of data and information. Fraud seems to be the minor end of the scale; blackmail and extortion also spring to mind.
Particularly of interest was the data collected by the Sports Tracker facility – who knew that a photo of your home address could be on your own phone without your knowledge? A danger of which women should be aware.
Add to all of this the possibility of hijacking of wireless network connections and the list of potential crimes rolls on and on. Some people will say that that either I’m a pessimist or a drama queen. Others will say that this article is about the UK so why should anyone else worry? Yet others may say that it takes a computer expert to access the data. In my job, computer and technology forensics has increased dramatically over the past five years and it is a very real danger of which all of us should be aware. Some people choose to access data in legitimate settings to help solve crimes. Other people will exploit any weakness they can to make money, in whatever way they see fit.

Indiana: forced DNA samples Anna Sandiford Oct 20

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I read with interest an article Indiana court: no warrant needed to force DNA where the Americans are up in arms about being able to take a DNA sample from someone after they’ve been arrested.  Just as well they haven’t been to England recently then.  In England & Wales, if a person is arrested in relation to any crime the Police can and do take DNA samples and fingerprints.  These are processed and put on the national database, regardless of whether the person is ever found guilty of a crime.  It makes the DNA database an extremely effective tool in the fight against crime.  Many people have been arrested as the result of being arrested for something relatively minor such as recidivist speeding or outstanding Council fines and their DNA has come back with a “hit” on the database for something far more serious such as rape or murder.

I understand from police colleagues that in New Zealand there is no automatic right to be able to collect samples from people when they have been arrested but those arrested people can be offered the option to provide samples.  Police officers I know like to encourage people to give their DNA but if the person isn’t convicted of a crime then the sample and the results must be eliminated.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with contribution to a DNA database.  In fact, I had to provide a sample on more than one occasion in order to be able to even enter some of the forensic science laboratories in England & Wales – and I know those samples weren’t destroyed after I had left the lab.  Perhaps I don’t mind because I know how the database works and I still have faith that it works properly.  What happens when the day comes that it doesn’t work properly and a miscarriage of justice occurs?  It’s happened with the fingerprint database – to a police officer.

I know that many people have a problem with the idea of part of their body being taken by the State and kept for comparison with other samples at a later date.  Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but at the end of the day, the Police need to be able to tackle crime in the most effective way possible.  Not getting arrested is the best way for a member of the general public to keep their DNA and fingerprints off the database, so therefore I assume the answer is not to become a Person Of Interest to the Police.

How to get a job in forensic science? Retrain Anna Sandiford Oct 19

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I have previously written about getting a career in forensic science (How to get a job in forensic science) because I am always being asked this very question.  I gave a lecture only last Thursday about forensic science in the UK and what a great place it is to get work experience, which is very true.  It’s hard not to be negative about a career in forensic science because there have been so many redundancies (800 in England & Wales) and Police budgets are being cut in both NZ and the UK.  Once again I say that this is setting someone (or more) up for a miscarriage of justice.

Now I see an article that demonstrates my worst fears: The grisly truth about CSI degrees. The article shows that the UK Forensic Science Service currently has 1,300 scientists (but it doesn’t say whether this includes the 800 to be made redundant). It goes on to say that the UK’s largest private provider, LGC Forensics, employs 500 people. In 2008 alone, 1,667 students embarked on the 285 forensic science degree courses (compared with just 2 courses in 1990).  This massive increase in numbers is, as I have commented previously, as a result of the CSI Effect.  I like the final sentence in the article: “in order to ensure there are enough jobs to go round, more than half of them will have to retrain as serial killers.” And what better people to know how to cover their tracks than forensic scientists?!

Forensic science applied to art Anna Sandiford Oct 16

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It’s amazing the jobs that people have and the uses to which scientific techniques can be put.  Take forensic art investigation for example.  As a forensic pollen specialist, of all people I should know the value of cross-discipline application of forensic techniques, but I hadn’t ever really heard of forensic art.  Yet here is forensic art in action, re-assigning a piece of art to da Vinci – altering the value of the painting from NZ$42,000 to a staggering NZ$350 million: How do Experts Authenticate Art? They’ve used a combination of techniques to produce a convincing result: radiocarbon dating places the age at a time consistent with da Vinci, brush stroke analysis demonstrates probable left-handedness.  A faint fingerprint was found on the canvas, which matched one found on a canvas known to be a da Vinci that is hanging in Vatican City.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether this evidence meets the standard of proof required in criminal or civil cases.  How do we know that the fingerprint on the known da Vinci actually belonged to da Vinci?  A good lawyer would trash that in seconds: maybe da Vinci had an assistant who also handled his pictures.  What is the error on the radiocarbon date?  What is the risk of radiocarbon contamination?  Was da Vinci definitely left-handed?  What is the likelihood that the painter was left-handed?  Perhaps I am just a cynic who should allow art to be appreciated…

Why check an Expert’s credentials? Anna Sandiford Oct 14

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An interesting article appeared in the Washington Post in September entitled Shoddy Forensic Science: fact & fiction.  As part of the lectures and presentations I give, I always mention why Experts should be instructed and how to tell that you have a genuine Expert.  The example I put up to explain why lawyers should check Experts’ credentials (rather than just assume that they are as good as they tell you they are) is a man called Gene Morrison.

Gene Morrison was a bogus ’forensic investigator’ based in the northern area of England.  He cut and pasted many of his reports cut from the internet. He was charged with a variety of offences including obtaining a money transfer by deception, obtaining property by deception, perverting the course of justice and perjury.  Morrison bought his qualifications from a sham university because, as he told the court it “looked easier” than attending a real university.  He’d never formally trained as a forensic scientist and it seems that he thought it would be a good way to make money.

Morrison was found guilty of most of the charges and jailed for 5  years in 2005.  The biggest issue is that he left a legacy of approximately 700 cases, prepared over a period of 26 years.  All of these cases had to be re-assessed to ensure that there had not been any miscarriages of justice.  Imagine the cost to the tax payer.

New Zealand, of course, had their own example in the form of Dr Michael Bottrill who mis-read cervical screening results in the Gisborne region.  23,000 slides were re-read by an Australian lab, which found that he only diagnosed 15% of the high grade cancer slides.

Unfortunately, it generally takes the occurrence of negative events to prompt change.  I cannot emphasise enough how strongly I feel that lawyers must adequately check the credentials of Experts before the stage of instruction – and checking of credentials is critical in so many areas, as demonstrated in the cervical smear debacle.

Drug driving and impairment testing Anna Sandiford Oct 14

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Drug driving is illegal in many countries including New Zealand and the UK.  New Zealand has recently (June 2009) changed the law in order to increase the rate of successful prosecutions .  These changes, which come into force in December 2009, include giving the Police the power to conduct roadside impairment tests.  Such tests were introduced in England & Wales in 2004.  As a forensic scientist working largely for the Defence at that time, these changes resulted in a) more casework coming through our door; and b) more successful prosecutions.  As long as the Police covered off all relevant points it was very unlikely a case would fail. My involvement was to assess whether or not the various points had been covered.  These included:
  • a witness (including a Police Officer) who could talk about the manner of driving of the Driver at the time in question;
  • the results of roadside impairment tests undertaken by the Driver under the supervision and direction of a specially-trained Police Officer.  If the Officer deemed that the Driver had performed poorly then they had grounds for arrest and transfer of the Driver to the Police Station.
  • once at the Police Station, a medic is required to examine the Driver.  This allows the medic to rule out any medical cause for any impairment observed by the Police Officer at the scene — the Driver usually has to re-do some or all of the impairment tests.  If the medic formed the opinion that the Driver was impaired through the use of drugs, a blood sample could be taken.  Without this opinion the taking of a blood sample was not allowed.
  • the blood sample would be analysed to detect the presence of a range of commonly-encountered drugs (prescription and illegal) that can adversely affect driving performance. Some drug or metabolite would need to be identified in order to confirm that the Driver may have been under the influence of drugs at the time in question.
All of the above had to be in place for a successful prosecution.  The law change in New Zealand seems to be along similar lines but only time will tell how well the Police and the legal system deal with the changes. Despite the law changes in England & Wales being successful (in my experience at least), the UK government has announced a new ad campaign warning of the dangers of drug driving. The adverts will advise drivers that the Police can spot the signs of whether someone may be under the influence of drugs using the tag line  ’Your eyes will give you away.’ It’s true of course.  Drugs affect difference people in different ways but can be generalised.  For instance, depressants such as cannabis impair a driver’s perception of distance, time and speed as well as restrict the ability to do two things at once (such as look for traffic and change gear).  Cocaine is a stimulant and can cause people to take risks such as driving at high speed in a dangerous manner. People cannot control how drugs affect them, particularly when combined, such as cocaine and alcohol.  Time will tell whether the law change in New Zealand helps combat the problem of drug drivers.

A ’weekend in Amsterdam’ will take on a new meaning… Anna Sandiford Oct 05

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As soon as someone in the UK says they’re off for a weekend to Amsterdam, eyebrows go up because we all know what they’re up to – no, not necessarily to see the Ladies of the Night but off to get stoned in a coffee shop (let’s face it, they don’t usually move from the first one they go into).  It’s a popular destination for stag weekends and any other poor excuse for visiting Europe and “seeing the sights”.

However, it seems the Dutch authorities have had enough of “drug tourists” flooding the country and causing untold problems. After originally decriminalising consumption and possession of less than 5 grams of cannabis in 1976, the Dutch government now plans to limit drug tourism by reserving for the use of locals only dozens and dozens of the 700 licensed coffee shops (cultivation of cannabis is still illegal).  Some coffee shops are going to become Members Only clubs, restricting sales to those with a Dutch debit card (basically removing foreigners from the purchasing pool).

To give you an idea of how many people we’re talking about here, two Councils in Holland that have eight coffee shops have announced they will stop the sale of cannabis in those shops in an attempt to stem the flow of the 25,000 customers they have PER WEEK!  That’s 25,000 drug tourists PER WEEK in just those two areas!!!!   It shows how much of a problem it must be for The Netherlands because that kind of restriction on sale is surely going to have a marked impact on the economy.

Presumably the change in the Dutch government’s stance is due in part to the increased strength of cannabis.  This has come about as the result of cross-breeding variants of cannabis plants to increase the THC content (THC – (delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol) – is the active ingredient of cannabis that causes the ‘high’).  Analysis of cannabis samples over time have shown that Dutch cannabis contained an average of 8.6% THC in 2000 compared with 15.2 % in 2002.  In my experience, this is not dissimilar to the story in England and Wales and to my knowledge, it’s a similar story here in New Zealand.

Cannabis used to be grown in large quantities in NZ because, basically, the cannabis plant is a weed and likes the climate here.  Perhaps at one stage the decriminalisation of cannabis could have been a big political issue here but a lot of the cannabis cultivation has largely been replaced with methamphetamine production.  The number of cannabis cultivation cases here have dropped significantly over the past few years as gangs move to manufacture of P (pure methamphetamine), which takes up less space and is therefore easier to hide.  It is also worth more financially for a lot less effort and with a quicker production time.

NZ’s P problem is a localised phenomenon – it’’s not a drug commonly encountered in any European country although there are clandestine P laboratories in the US.  New Zealand has world class expertise in identification of P labs, clan lab clean up, yield calculations and property remediation/air quality testing.  It’s a sad thing in which to be a world leader.

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