The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to find ways to strengthen the privacy and rights of victims of sexual assault when they submit DNA evidence, responding to allegations that San Francisco police used rape kit evidence to prosecute the victim.
The unanimous decision comes just weeks after the San Francisco District Attorney's Office reported that the San Francisco Police Department had used DNA evidence from a victim, who had taken forensic medical exam following an alleged rape in 2016, in order to link her to a felony property crime.
The office accused the police department of lumping DNA evidence from sexual assault forensic exams into a larger pool of DNA evidence used to search for suspects, which could be a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In a statement, Police Chief Bill Scott said the department is "reviewing" its DNA collection policies, and that he would be "committed to ending" the practice of using DNA evidence against sexual assault victims if it was truly used to incriminate them.
The charges against the woman have since been dropped.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, which operates a forensic lab serving all criminal justice agencies in the county, prohibits the use of DNA evidence from rape kits from being used to prosecute survivors, according to a board referral by Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. Still, she said the county should take a close look at its own policies and find ways to further strengthen the rights of survivors of sexual assault.
What allegedly took place in San Francisco not only violates the privacy of the survivor, Chavez said, but could have a chilling effect on future victims who already distrust law enforcement and underreport sex crimes, specifically women of color and members of the LGBT community. Many victims, mostly women, will decline a forensic exam following a sexual assault.
"If survivors fear that providing vital biological evidence might be used against them later, they are less likely to cooperate," Chavez wrote in the referral. "We cannot allow the further victimization of sexual assault survivors."
Supervisors voted at the March 8 meeting to have county officials come back with a report publicizing the crime lab's existing policies and practices for handling DNA evidence from survivors of sexual assault, as well as any possible ways to strengthen the privacy rights of victims. At the suggestion of county Supervisor Joe Simitian, the review will include both the Public Defender's Office as well as the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, the county's independent oversight agency.
Chavez said it should be clear to all that sexual assault survivors will not incriminate themselves by submitting to a medical exam.
"I want to make sure that survivors know that they can be safe in coming forward and getting help," she said.
In a press conference preceding the vote, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen reaffirmed that DNA evidence from rape kits has not and will not be used against victims, and that their goal is to protect survivors of sexual assault.