SF Police Use DNA From Rape Exams to Identify Suspects in Unrelated Cases, DA Says

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A man wearing a face mask stands behind a lectern, with two women on either side of him.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks during a press conference at his office on Feb. 15, 2022, discussing the SFPD's alleged practice of logging DNA evidence from rape kits into a crime database to use as evidence in other crimes.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco police regularly log rape victims’ DNA information into a database to use as evidence in unrelated crimes.

That's according to an explosive allegation made this week by the city’s top prosecutor, who is calling for local and state legislation to specifically outlaw the practice.

"We are here to end a routine practice that violates the law and abuses the trust of survivors," District Attorney Chesa Boudin said at a press conference Tuesday. "It is my commitment going forward to never use DNA obtained in this unlawful way."

Boudin said he recently became aware of the practice when one of his prosecutor's working on a property crime case received a set of records from police detailing how a female suspect had been identified and subsequently arrested. In the documents, investigators described conducting a "routine search" of an internal database that revealed a match with a 2016 sample, collected after she had been sexually assaulted.

Following the press conference Tuesday, Boudin's office said it was dismissing the charge against the woman in question, claiming that the evidence that led to the arrest had been gathered unlawfully, in violation of her rights.

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Victims of sexual assault can voluntarily submit DNA evidence through a forensic exam as part of what's commonly called a "rape kit," used to distinguish and identify perpetrators.

Boudin, who faces a June recall election, said the recent revelation makes clear that the SFPD crime lab, and likely many other crime labs around the state, routinely use DNA collected from rape kits to investigate unrelated crimes.

"We don't know how many thousands of survivors of sexual assault have their DNA without their consent — in violation of Marsy’s Law and violation of the Fourth Amendment — stored in this database," Boudin said, referring to California's victims' bill of rights law, and the right to privacy guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. "We don't know if there are children who have survived sexual assault who have their DNA in this database. We don't know because the process has been opaque and it has been hidden from public view, and it must stop today."

In a statement, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said police officials would thoroughly investigate the allegation, emphasizing that his department's existing DNA collection policies have been "legally vetted and conform with state and national forensic standards." He also suggested the possibility that the victim's DNA had been found in an unrelated database.

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"We must never create disincentives for crime victims to cooperate with police, and if it's true that DNA collected from a rape or sexual assault victim has been used by SFPD to identify and apprehend that person as a suspect in another crime, I'm committed to ending the practice," Scott said. "Although I am informed of the possibility that the suspect in this case may have been identified through a DNA hit in a nonvictim DNA database, I think the questions raised by our district attorney today are sufficiently concerning."

Despite ongoing tensions between the police department and Boudin's office, including a recent rift over a terminated investigative agreement regarding police use-of-force incidents, Scott said he's willing to work with Boudin to address the matter and build trust with victims of sexual assault.

"Whatever disagreements District Attorney Boudin and I may have, we agree that this issue needs to be addressed," Scott said. "At the end of the day, our respective departments exist to do justice for victims of crime. The last thing we should ever do is discourage their cooperation with us to accomplish that."

Following Boudin’s allegation, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen were quick to voice their support for new legislation barring the practice.

"If survivors believe their DNA may end up being used against them in the future, they'll have one more reason not to participate in the rape kit process," Wiener said on Monday. "That's why I'm working with the DA's office to address this problem through state legislation, if needed."

Ronen said she had already asked the city attorney to draft legislation to prevent DNA evidence — or any sort of evidence from a victim's rape kit — to be used for anything other than investigating that incident.

"There are already enormous barriers for victims of rape to come forward to report the crime," she said.

Ilse Knecht, the advocacy and policy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which advocates for survivors of sexual assault, said she fears the recent revelation will further discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward.

"Survivors often feel shame and blame, and they really fear the societal response to coming forward, and this type of action just continues to increase their fear and breaks their trust," she said, noting that fewer than a third of sexual assault victims report the incidents. "It just makes me sick. If survivors think that their DNA is going to be run through databases, they're not going to report."

This post includes reporting from Bay City News's Daniel Montes.