Last October, police in Milton Keynes, a district just north of London, were searching in the bushes along one of the area’s many bike and pedestrian paths.
In one bush, they found a package containing 15.82 grams of cocaine and 10.3 grams of heroin.
Two months later, police arrested Darren Levy. Last week, the 35-year old was sentenced to five years in jail for possession with intent to distribute—despite not being anywhere near the drugs in question.
But at some point before the cache of drugs, which was worth more $4,300, was ditched in the bushes, Levy had touched the package—apparently. After its discovery, police “forensically tested” the package, and found traces of Levy’s DNA, according to a press release from the Thames Valley Citizen.
Levy was apparently in the police’s DNA database and that was enough to have him arrested and convicted after a five-day trial. Police are now celebrating the “great result,” and chalking up Levy’s arrest as a victory for the local organized crime task force.
Details from the trial are scant, but the case presents a troubling precedent, beyond the usual concerns with forensic science: If you touch something and then put it down, is it yours?
DNA evidence has saved innocent people from the death penalty. But DNA has also been used to prosecute people who were eventually exonerated. Despite these scattershot results, as the BBC reported in 2012, “DNA has become the magic bullet for police,” with erratic outcomes.
In once instance, police used DNA evidence to put an innocent person in prison for murder, despite closed-circuit television evidence—England is one of the most surveilled places in the world—clearly placing them somewhere else. In other words, despite clear evidence contradicting what the DNA revealed, cops went with the DNA, to the detriment of both their case and an ultimately innocent person.
“I think in the current climate [DNA] has made police lazy,” defense attorney Paolo Martini told the BBC that year.
In Levy’s case, there doesn’t appear to be anything linking him to the discarded drugs—no eyewitnesses, no recorded sales, not even any handwriting, the key link in a recent fentanyl bust in the U.S.—aside from a flake of skin or a piece of hair.
While the UK has clear problems with the drug trade that even the staunchest supporter of marijuana legalization must admit need fixing—such as the slave labor growing the country’s cannabis supply—the notion that a wayward DNA scrap, by itself, is enough to justify a lengthy prison term is not an encouraging development and should give those of us inclined to criminal justice reform some pause.