Santa Clara County to review how sex assault DNA is handled

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Santa Clara County officials are asking the county’s top law enforcement agency to review how it uses DNA collected from survivors of sexual assault, following a scandal in San Francisco.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday for the Santa Clara County District Attorney to outline how the county crime lab handles DNA from sexual assault victims. The board also wants the DA to come up with recommendations to better protect the rights of survivors, if appropriate.

“I’m asking for a public discussion about this because I want to make sure that survivors know they can be safe in coming forward in getting help, including a sexual assault forensic exam,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who introduced the referral. The board also directed the Public Defender’s Office and the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring to participate in the review.

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Chavez’s referral follows a revelation from the Los Angeles Times, which reported last month that the San Francisco Police Department allegedly used DNA collected from a rape victim to identify and arrest her for an unrelated property crime.

To identify assailants, sexual assault survivors are asked to undergo an examination to collect bodily fluids and other possible evidence. There is widespread concern people won’t report their assaults or provide biological evidence if they believe law enforcement agencies will use their DNA against them.

“I’m troubled and greatly concerned that the development that happened in San Francisco will have an alarming effect on survivors seeking assistance after an assault,” said Adriana Caldera, chief executive officer of the YWCA Rape Crisis Center, during a news conference on Monday. “If they hear stories of broken trust, it may prevent them from coming forward and receiving critical services around medical care, emotional support and connection to resources.”

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office already prohibits searching survivors’ DNA profiles or using that data to prosecute them for crimes. District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he has two priorities in sexual assault cases: protecting the victim’s well-being and holding the rapist accountable.

“Victim DNA is used to catch rapists—period,” said Rosen during the news conference. “The DA’s crime lab does not use victim DNA for any other purpose. It does not go into an offender database, period.”

According to a 2020 county report, filed charges about sexual assault have remained relatively stable for several years. Reports increased by 13% from 2018 to 2019, rising from 279 charges filed to 318. The report said sexual assault is among the most under-reported crimes. Changing societal attitudes may be causing more people to report assaults, the report noted.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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