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Police will be able to keep DNA and fingerprint records of innocent people on file indefinitely following a landmark legal ruling yesterday.

The House of Lords, the highest court in England and Wales, upheld earlier rulings by the High Court and Court of Appeal against two people who wanted their records destroyed by South Yorkshire Police after separate criminal investigations against them were dropped. Five law lords unanimously ruled that the need to solve crimes outweighed civil liberties concerns.

The law was changed in 2001 to allow police to keep samples from suspects for use in "crime prevention or investigation". In his judgement, Lord Brown argued that the cause of human rights would be better served by expanding police databases rather than deleting records. He dismissed human rights objections raised by the appealants as "threadbare" and said the only logical reason for objecting to samples being kept by the police was that it would make it easier for authorities to arrest someone if they ever offended in future.

"The larger the database, the less call there will be to round up the usual suspects. Indeed, those amongst the usual suspects who are innocent will at once be exonerated," Lord Brown said, The Daily Telegraph reports.

Lord Steyn, who gave the leading judgment in the appeal, backed this view. He said police should be able to take advantage of modern technology which "enables the guilty to be detected and the innocent to be rapidly eliminated from inquiries".

The landmark ruling affects individuals who have been arrested and charged with a crime but not convicted of an offence. Law Lords made the ruling in considering the appeal of an 11 year-old Sheffield boy suspected of attempted robbery in 2001 and Michael Marper, 41, also from Sheffield, charged with harassing his partner. Marper's other half withdrew her complaint after the couple were reconciled and the case was dropped.

Law Lords rejected arguments that South Yorkshire Police's actions in keeping sample after the two cases were dropped contravened either the individual’s right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights or the right not to be discriminated against under Article 14 of the same convention.

Solicitor for the appellants, Peter Mahy, said his clients may challenge the Law Lords' ruling in the European Court of Human Rights. ®

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