National Assembly approves forensic law reform

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The National Assembly has approved legislation giving the police access to the biometric databases of other government departments including the Home Affairs identity system and the drivers’ licence records of the transport department, both of which includes fingerprints and photographs.

Speaking during debate on the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill, Justice minister Jeff Radebe said that the measure was intended to deal with fingerprint and DNA evidence shortcomings – two pivotal aspects of forensic crime fighting. Owing to alleged legal and information technology reasons, the police today only have access to the fingerprints stored on its own Automated Fingerprint Information System (AFIS).

As a result, the police currently have no direct access to the Home Affairs National Identification System where the fingerprints and photos of 41-million citizens and about 2.5-million foreigners are kept. Nor have police had access to the transport department’s electronic National Traffic Information System (eNatis) system, where a further six-million fingerprints and photos are kept. Nor do they have access to he fingerprint and photographic records of the prisons department that keeps records of all prisoners, or the military or the intelligence services, who have biometric data of staff who have undergone security clearances. Legal experts have said there is no reason why the police cannot access these databases as investigating crime was a legitimate purpose that ought to over-ride privacy concerns in a democracy. Nor was here any law preventing the police from such access. Cabinet however decided to legislate the matter nonetheless.

Radebe said that the criminal justice system review office, through an analysis of a compendium of statistics, had found that in 52.5% of all crime cases in 2006/07, and in 46.2% in 2007/08, the perpetrators remained undetected. A further 11.3% of cases in 2006/07 and 13% in 2007/08 were withdrawn before reaching court. “In other words, a total of 63.6% in financial year 2006/07, or 59.2% in 2007/08 of all crimes investigated never reached court,” he told MPs. “Of the 6.5-million more serious crimes in the criminal justice system for the period 2001 to 2006, a total of 4.4-million, or 68% of cases, were undetected or withdrawn before reaching court,” he said.

In addition, current criminal law did not provide for compulsory taking of fingerprints, even in instances where a person had been convicted of an offence. “Therefore, the manner in which fingerprints are currently collected, loaded into the South African Police Service’s database and used, means that a fingerprint lifted at a crime scene will most likely only be checked against the limited number of fingerprints of convicted offenders included in that database.”

The bill intended to address all these shortcomings by ensuring that the police have access to the fingerprint databases of other government departments for criminal investigations only, and by expanding police powers to take and return fingerprints, bodyprints, and photographic images of persons charged with or convicted of offences, the South African Press Association added.

Radebe said that the bill contained strict safeguards and penalties to ensure that fingerprints, bodyprints, and photographic images were collected, stored and used only for purposes related to detecting crime, investigating an offence, identifying missing persons and unidentified human remains, or conducting prosecutions.

Care had thus been taken to strike an appropriate balance between an individual’s right to dignity and privacy as entrenched in the Constitution and legitimate demands by the public that police pursue the objective of preventing, combating and investigating crime, he said.

Joe Mcgluwa, the opposition Independent Democrats party’s home affairs spokesman has welcomed the passage of the Bill.



Pic: Police arrest a suspected drug dealer in Melville,Johannesburg, December 2009.