Legislation banning the use of DNA from victims collected during a rape kit examination for reasons unrelated to the assault cleared a first hurdle last week when it was unanimously rejected by a Senate committee.
The bill, led by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would clearly prohibit law enforcement from entering a victim’s DNA samples into a database. It would also prohibit the inclusion of an intimate partner’s DNA collected for exclusion purposes.
Senator Wiener’s legislation follows a explosive report earlier this year detailing how San Francisco police entered victims’ DNA into a database and how a woman was linked to a crime due to DNA from her rape kit.
“There are so many barriers for survivors of sexual assault coming forward: a lack of trust in the system, the belief that they cannot be taken seriously, the fear that they will put themselves in physical danger “Senator Wiener told the News-Presse in an interview. “We need to send a very clear message to survivors that if they come forward, we support you and we are not going to use your DNA against you.”
Sexual assault forensic exams, often referred to as rape kits, are performed by medical professionals to collect DNA or other evidence from a person in order to prosecute or identify a perpetrator. Examinations can be long, invasive and traumatic for victims of sexual assault.
If victims don’t feel supported or protected during this process, “we’re going to see even fewer people coming forward,” said Senator Wiener.
San Francisco has since the end of the policy that allowed rape victims’ DNA to be used for purposes other than the assault investigation – and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin argued SB 1228 – but Senator Wiener maintained that his legislation was still necessary to prevent possible future incidents.
“We don’t know if it’s happening elsewhere,” he said. “It is important to have a rule in place so that this does not happen elsewhere. You never know in the future if another person is in charge of DNA databases.
Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley said analysts with the California District Attorneys Association believe the practice is unique to San Francisco.
‘We are not aware of any local agency that engages in this practice, and no local instances where it has happened,’ Ms Dudley told News-Press.
The majority of sexual assaults go unreported to police, according to statistics from RAINN, the nation’s largest sexual violence organization. In fact, about two out of three assaults go unreported. The reasons range from fear of reprisal to lack of confidence that law enforcement could help, among a host of others.
“Public safety demands that we encourage and support victims who come forward for sexual assault testing – and break down barriers to reporting,” Boudin said.
“We need to do everything we can to support survivors of sexual assault,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, co-lead author of the bill. “This legislation sends the message that 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 that 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 referral process will be healing, not more harmful,” Senator Wiener said.
Ms. Dudley said there is no backlog in analyzing these kits in Santa Barbara at this time. She said a backlog is defined as a kit that has not been analyzed within 120 days of receipt by the lab.
Senator Wiener’s bill is now heading to the Appropriations Committee. It could be before Governor Gavin Newsom by September, he said.
Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a new position last week as a statewide Sexual Assault Evidence Outreach Coordinator with the Department of Justice’s Office of Forensic Services to assist law enforcement. order and laboratories to process rape kits. This person, once hired, will work with a Special Advisor to the Attorney General on Policy and Survivor Advocacy to remove barriers to testing and more.
Sexual assault exams 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 exam.
For more information on exam access and services, visit https://calsafe.net/about.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-656-4673.