Legislation that would bar DNA from victims collected during a rape kit examination from being used for reasons not related to the assault cleared an initial hurdle last week when it unanimously passed out of a Senate committee.
The bill, led by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would clearly prohibit law enforcement from entering DNA samples from a victim into any database. It would also bar the inclusion of DNA from an intimate partner collected for purposes of exclusion.
Sen. Wiener’s legislation comes in the wake of an explosive report earlier this year detailing how the San Francisco police had been entering victims’ DNA into a database, and a woman had been linked to a crime because of her rape kit DNA.
“There are so many barriers to sexual assault survivors coming forward: a lack of trust in the system, belief that they may not be taken seriously, the concern that they may be putting themselves in physical danger,” Sen. Wiener told the News-Press in an interview. “We need to send a very clear message to survivors that if they come forward, we support you and we’re not going to use your DNA against you.”
Sexual assault forensic examinations, often called rape kits, are conducted by health care professionals to collect DNA or other evidence from a person in order to prosecute or identify a perpetrator. The examinations can be lengthy, invasive and re-traumatizing to victims of sexual assault.
If victims do not feel they are supported or protected during this process, “we’re going to see even fewer people come forward,” Sen. Wiener said.
San Francisco has since ended the policy that allowed rape victims’ DNA to be used for purposes other than investigating the assault — and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has backed SB 1228 — but Sen. Wiener maintained his legislation is still needed to prevent potential future incidents.
“We don’t know if it’s happening elsewhere,” he said. “It’s important to have a rule in place so that it doesn’t happen elsewhere. You never know in the future if a different person is in charge of DNA databases.”
Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley said analysts for the California District Attorney’s Association believe the practice was unique to San Francisco.
“We know of no local agency that engages in this practice, and no local case where this has occurred,” Ms. Dudley told the News-Press.
The majority of sexual assaults are not reported to police, according to statistics from RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. In fact, about two out of every three assaults go unreported. Reasons range from feared retaliation to a lack of confidence that law enforcement could help, among a bevy of others.
“Public safety demands that we encourage and support survivors who come forward to undergo sexual assault examinations — and eliminate barriers to reporting,” said Mr. Boudin.
“We must do all we can to support survivors of sexual assault,” said Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, the bill’s principal co-author. “This legislation sends the message they can trust the criminal justice system and come forward to report their cases.”
Additionally, Sen. Wiener said California needs to do more to ensure rape kits are processed in a timely manner.
“The system needs to be more supportive of survivors so they know if they come forward … the process of coming forward will be healing and not more harmful,” Sen. Wiener said.
Ms. Dudley said there is no backlog in analyzing these kits in Santa Barbara at this moment. She said a backlog is defined as a kit that has not been analyzed within 120 days of receipt by the lab.
Sen. Wiener’s bill now heads to the Appropriations Committee. It could be before Gov. Gavin Newsom by September, he said.
Attorney General Rob Bonta announced last week a new statewide sexual assault evidence outreach coordinator position with the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services to assist law enforcement and laboratories with the processing of rape kits. This person, once hired, will work with a special advisor to the attorney general on Survivor Policy and Advocacy to remove barriers to testing and more.
Sexual assault examinations are free, and victims are encouraged to get one as soon as possible, especially within five days of an attack. In California, mental health and medical treatment are available as part of the examination.
More about access and services to examinations can be found at https://calsafe.net/about.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24-hours, seven days a week at 1-800-656-4673.