Prosecutors are shocked by the use of rape-kit DNA for other crimes probes
SAN FRANCISCO (AP), -- A shocking claim by the San Francisco District Attorney that California crime labs use DNA from victims of sexual assault to investigate unrelated crimes stunned prosecutors across the country. Advocates said this practice could impact victims' willingness to come forward.
District Attorney Chesa Bodin stated that he was made aware of the "opaque" practice last week by prosecutors who found a report in hundreds of pages of evidence against a woman charged with a felony land crime. These papers refer to DNA samples taken from the woman in a 2016 rape investigation.
Boudin read the report at a Tuesday news conference. He said he couldn't share it due to privacy concerns. However, his office gave permission for the San Francisco Chronicle access to the documents. According to the newspaper, the victim was linked to a burglary that occurred in late 2021. This was based on a routine search of a crime lab database at San Francisco Police Department. The Chronicle reported that DNA taken from the same laboratory was used to match the victim.
Boudin claimed that someone from the crime lab informed his office that the practice was standard. Rachel Marshall, Boudin’s spokeswoman said that Mark Powell, crime lab director, was the person who told him this.
An email sent Wednesday by The Associated Press asking for comment from Powell was not returned.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott stated that his department is currently investigating. He will end the practice if he discovers that his department uses victims' DNA for investigating other crimes.
A spokesperson declined to comment on Wednesday about when the investigation's results could be expected. Scott said that he would likely address the allegations Wednesday at a meeting of the Police Commission.
Although there are strict regulations regarding DNA collection and analysis at the federal and state levels, dozens of local police departments across the U.S. have created their own DNA databases to track criminals.
It is not clear if that was what happened in San Francisco's crime lab or if that was what Boudin meant by referring to as a typical practice.
Jason Kreag, a University of Arizona law professor who studies forensic DNA issues, said that "these databases work in the background without very little regulation or very little light." It doesn't surprise and it's not the first instance. California law allows local law enforcement crime laboratories to maintain their own forensic databases, independent from state and federal databases. These databases can also be used by municipal labs for forensic analysis and DNA profiling. The law is not subject to regulation by the state.
Kreag stated that there may be other situations where DNA from someone is obtained for a particular purpose and then run through an electronic database. One example is that homeowners might submit their DNA to a burglary case in order to be excluded, but this DNA could later be linked to another crime.
"Would a district attorney have stood so strongly in such a case?" Kreag asked. Kreag asked. He replied that he had never heard of a case in which a victim of sexual assault was able to provide DNA.
Many other law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and California resisted Boudin's claim that it was a common practice.
New York Police Department Detective Sophia Mason stated that the agency does not "enter victims' DNA profiles into database or use them for unrelated investigations."
Michel Moore, Chief of Los Angeles Police, stated that the department doesn't do this.
The suggestion was also rejected by the San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Sacramento County district attorneys. Representatives from San Diego Police, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department crime laboratory and others also declined to comment.
Oakland law enforcement does not use DNA from victims of sexual assault to investigate other cases, but only in the context of the case.
It's not widespread, as far as I know," stated Ilse Knecht (director of policy and advocacy at Joyful Heart Foundation), which supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.
Knecht and others are concerned about the impact on victims of sexual assault, who often feel hesitant to report their experiences to law enforcement. Experts estimate that only 33% of sexual assaults are reported.
There is always the possibility that an accuser's DNA could potentially be used against them, however remote.
Knecht stated, "I believe anyone can understand why survivors would be afraid of reporting after hearing that story."
Nelson Bunn, the executive director of The National District Attorneys Association, stated that he had never heard of DNA crime labs using such DNA. He said that rape-kit DNA should be used only in investigations into sexual assault.
He said that trust would be "eroded" citing the "unfavorable effect of justice for victims sex assault on women."
Boudin's news conferences were not held in a vacuum. Boudin, a progressive prosecutor, is up for recall in June. He has been publicly battling with local law enforcement.
After the trial of Terrance Stangel (a former officer in the police force) began, the clash between his office & the police department grew. He was charged with battery and assault for hitting a man using a baton in 2019. This is the first case of excessive force against a San Francisco police officer on duty.
Scott ended his agreement to cooperate with the investigations by the district attorney into police shootings, in custody deaths, and use of force that results in serious injury earlier this month. This was due to concerns about the office's impartiality.
Boudin denied violating the agreement. The two men have now pledged to renegotiate the agreement with the help of the state attorney General and San Francisco's mayor/city attorney.