Bill to help SAPS establish collective fingerprints database

The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill will help address the urgent need to strengthen South Africa’s forensic crime fighting capacity to effectively fight crime and convict criminals in South Africa.

This is according to Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Enver Surty, who on Tuesday said the office for Criminal Justice System Reform (OCJSR), which is responsible for reviewing the country’s Criminal Justice System, had identified an urgent need to improve and strengthen the collection, storage and use of fingerprinting and DNA evidence.The minister said despite the number of government departments which administer databases containing fingerprints, the South African Police Services (SAPS) currently only had access to the fingerprints stored on the SAPS AFIS system.This is due to legal and information technology reasons.

Police investigators do not have access to the HANIS system of the Department of Home Affairs, where the fingerprints of 31 million citizens and about 2.5 million foreign nationals are kept. They also can not access information from the Department of Transport’s E-NATIS system, where the information and thumbprints of 6 million people is located, he said.As a result, in a large proportion of cases, the perpetrator remained undetected.

The Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which the department has published on its website for public comment, will also help address South African legislation regarding fingerprinting, which is not conducive to investigations regarding possible criminals. “The current Criminal Procedure Act does not make the taking of fingerprints compulsory, even in instances where a person has been convicted of an offence. “It also requires the destruction of fingerprints, palmprints, footprints, photographs and the record of steps taken to obtain such evidence if a person is found not-guilty or if no prosecution was instituted against a person from whom such evidence was collected,” said Mr Surty.

This, the minister said, meant that the fingerprints lifted at a crime scene would most likely only be checked against the limited number of fingerprints from convicted offenders, which have been included in the database. Although the taking of blood samples in criminal cases and the ascertainment of other bodily features is broadly regulated under the Act, no mention is made of the collection od DNA evidence. It is for this reason, according to the Deputy Minister of Justice Johnny de Lange, that the department had drafted the amendments to the Act.

The Bill will enable the SAPS to access the fingerprint databases of other government departments for criminal investigation purposes and expand their power to take and retain fingerprints and other biometric materials. The Bill will also see the establishment, administration and use of a DNA database as a criminal intelligence tool. “The Bill aims to achieve these objectives while providing for strict safeguards and penalties to ensure that forensic materials are collected, stored and used only for purposes related to the prevention or detection of crime, the investigation of an offence or the conduct of a prosecution,” he said.

A DNA database and an expanded fingerprint capacity, are important intelligence tools, particularly in crimes where the detection is generally low, such as property crimes. It will also lead to a significant increase in suspect-to-crime-scene matches. The matches help identify patterns of criminal behaviour that may help to solve past, existing and future crimes. Mr de Lange said the creation of such a database would result in more plea bargains and guilty please because suspects would be confronted with real evidence.

Nthambeleni Gabara,, 10 December  2008