LONDON — Europe's top human rights court struck down a British law Thursday that allows the government to store DNA and fingerprints from people with no criminal record — a landmark decision that could force Britain to destroy nearly 1-million samples on its database.
Rights groups say the ruling could have even wider implications for the storage of other sensitive and personal data. The case originated when British police refused to destroy DNA samples of two Britons whose criminal cases were dropped.
Seventeen judges on the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously that keeping DNA samples and fingerprints was in violation of people's right to a private life — a protection under the Human Rights Convention to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. The court also criticized Britain's use of "blanket and indiscriminate" storage.
Britain cannot appeal the ruling. It has until March to submit plans for destroying samples or to make a case for why some should be kept. Many European countries allow for temporary storage of DNA in sex crimes or other offenses, but samples are usually destroyed after the cases are closed.
"It's a fantastic result after a seven-year, hard-fought battle," said Peter Mahy, a lawyer who represented the two Britons.
Britain has one of the world's largest DNA databases with more than 4.5-million samples, usually collected with a cheek swab.
In England and Wales, more than 850,000 DNA samples from people with no criminal record are stored on the national database.
"DNA and fingerprinting is vital to the fight against crime, providing the police with more than 3,500 matches a month," said Britain's Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. "The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgment."