California Lawmakers Push 6 Bills to Improve Rape Laws and Testing of Backlogged Rape Kits

Monday, February 29, 2016
David Chiu (photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

By Melody Gutierrez, New York Times


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California lawmakers are pushing law enforcement agencies to ensure rape kits are being processed and victims are being heard, with several bills introduced so far this year in the state Legislature.


The bills follow years of reports about massive rape-kit backlogs across the nation and stories of cases where shelved DNA evidence could have stopped a serial sex offender before a new crime was committed. In January, Heather Marlowe filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against San Francisco, alleging the Police Department denied her equal protection under the law by not adequately investigating her case or testing her rape kit. That case is pending.


``We need to provide more accountability around why kits are not tested,'' said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco. ``Hopefully in the not too distant future, we can say there is no rape-kit backlog in California.''


But, as Chiu points out, there are only estimates on how big California's rape-kit backlog is. The Joyful Heart Foundation, a national victims rights group and a major proponent of clearing the national rape-kit backlog, said a partial count in the state found 6,100 untested rape kits, which are a collection of evidence taken during a forensic examination at a hospital. In many cases, the hours-long process involves collecting blood, urine, fingernail clippings, hair and swabs from the mouth, genitals and anus.


Chiu authored legislation that would require rape kits to be tracked by law enforcement so that the state can have a better understanding of how many kits go untested each year and why. That information would then be submitted to the state Legislature each year. Chiu's bill is sponsored by Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is also supporting a bill by Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, that requires all law enforcement agencies to use a central statewide DNA database to increase the likelihood of finding matches on cold cases.


Chiu's bill, which is similar to another bill that failed last year, is likely to face opposition from those who argue it's too costly and say that many rape kits are rightly not tested when a victim recants or the suspect is already known.


Other bills introduced this year would eliminate the state's statute of limitations on sex crimes, give victims the ability to track their rape kit and create a uniform rape kit to be used statewide. Currently there are various versions.


The many bills addressing rape kits signal lawmakers are listening, said victim rights advocate Kendall Anderson.


``There is a noteworthy shift in the public consciousness when it comes to rape,'' said Anderson, who successfully advocated for changes in how the Oakland Police Department treats rape victims.


Anderson, 22, reported she was raped in 2013 and said police made her feel as if she was at fault by referring to her as a suspect, interviewing her in an interrogation room and questioning how hard she fought off the man she accused of assaulting her.


``The issue has been spotlighted in the media, and many survivors have come forward to put a face to this,'' said Anderson, a communications professional for a San Francisco startup.


A bill by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, R-San Diego, would require the Department of Justice to upgrade its database for tracking rape kits so that victims of sexual assault have the ability to follow the progress of their own evidence. Maienschein's office said this change would give victims peace of mind in knowing their rape kit is being processed and ensuring law enforcement analyzes it in a timely manner.


Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, authored a bill that would eliminate the state's statute of limitations for rape and other sex crimes, which is currently 10 years. The bill is supported by attorney Gloria Allred, who is representing women who allege actor Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them several decades ago.


``The courthouse door should never be slammed shut to prevent rape and sexual assault victims from seeking justice because of an arbitrary time period called the statute of limitations,'' Allred said in a statement.


When a rape kit is analyzed and enough DNA evidence is found, it is uploaded into a national database called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which contains 10.6 million genetic profiles of known criminals and unsolved cases.


San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said it is important that agencies ensure all rape kits are being processed. He said even if a rape is past the 10-year statute of limitations, it can be used as evidence in a different case against the same suspect.


``These are victims of incredibly egregious crimes who have done everything that law enforcement has asked by coming forward and subjecting themselves to a very invasive examination,'' Gascon said. ``They've done their part, we owe it to them to do ours, and steps that streamline the process and provide accountability will ensure law enforcement agencies follow through and close the loop.''


To Learn More:

10,000 Backlogged Rape Kits Finally Tested Lead to Hundreds of Indictments in Ohio (by Kim Palmer, Reuters)

At Least 70,000 Rape Kits Remain Untested (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

S.F. Police Chief Balks at Chance to Track Down Pre-2003 Rapists (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Increased Testing of Old Rape Kits Starting to Lead to more Arrests and Convictions (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Murder and Rape DNA Test Backlog Hits 350,000 (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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