SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco District Attorney’s astonishing claim that California crime labs are using the DNA of sexual assault survivors to investigate unrelated crimes has shocked prosecutors nationwide, and attorneys said that this practice could affect the willingness of victims to come forward.
District Attorney Chesa Boudin said she learned of the “opaque practice” last week after prosecutors found a report among hundreds of pages of evidence in the case against a woman recently charged with a crime against children. goods. The documents referred to a DNA sample taken from the woman during a 2016 rape investigation.
Boudin read the report Tuesday at a press conference and said he couldn’t share it due to privacy concerns, but his office has allowed the San Francisco Chronicle to review the documents. The newspaper said the woman was linked to a burglary in late 2021 during a “routine search” of a San Francisco Police Department crime lab database. The match comes from DNA collected from the same lab listed in a sexual assault report, The Chronicle reported.
Boudin said someone at the crime lab told his office the practice was standard procedure. According to Rachel Marshall, Boudin’s spokeswoman, that person was crime lab director Mark Powell.
Powell did not respond Wednesday to an Associated Press email seeking comment.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said his department is investigating. If he finds that his department is using victims’ DNA to investigate other crimes, he pledges to end this practice.
A spokesperson declined to comment Wednesday on when the results of the investigation can be expected. He said Scott would likely address the allegations later Wednesday at a police board meeting.
There are strict government regulations regarding DNA collection and analysis at the state and federal levels, but dozens of local police departments across the United States have built their own DNA databases to track criminals, found PA in 2017.
It is unclear whether this is what happened in the San Francisco crime lab, or what Boudin called common practice.
“These databases operate in the background with very little regulation and very little light,” said Jason Kreag, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has studied forensic DNA issues. “It doesn’t surprise me, and I don’t think this is the only instance where it has actually happened.”
California law allows local law enforcement laboratories to operate their own forensic databases separate from federal and state databases. The law also allows city labs to perform forensic analysis, including DNA profiling, using these databases — without regulation by the state or others.
Kreag said there could be other cases where someone’s DNA is collected for a specific purpose and then run into a database. For example, homeowners might submit their DNA in a burglary case to rule them out, but later that DNA might be linked to another crime.
“Would the district attorney have come out so forcefully” in a case like this? Kreag asked. He said he had not heard of any such case involving the DNA of a sexual assault victim.
Several other law enforcement agencies in California and elsewhere in the United States have pushed back against Boudin’s claim that it was standard practice.
New York Police Department Detective Sophia Mason said the agency “does not enter victims’ DNA profiles into databases or use them in unrelated investigations.”
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said, “Certainly the department doesn’t do that.”
District attorneys in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sacramento counties also rejected the suggestion, as did representatives from the San Diego police, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime lab and others.
In Oakland, law enforcement only uses sexual assault victim DNA “in the context of the case for which the evidence was submitted, and not to investigate other cases.”
“As far as I know, it’s not a widespread practice,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, which helps survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. children.
Knecht and others fear the effect on victims of sexual assault, many of whom are already reluctant to report their experiences to law enforcement. Experts say only a third of sexual assaults are reported to authorities.
The possibility – however remote – that an accuser’s DNA could be used against them could raise further barriers.
“I think everyone can appreciate how scared survivors would be to report after hearing this story,” Knecht said.
Nelson Bunn, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said he was not personally aware of any crime labs using DNA in this way. Rape kit DNA should only be used in sexual assault investigations, he said.
“Otherwise, trust would be eroded,” he said, citing “a detrimental effect on justice for victims of sexual assault.”
Boudin’s press conferences did not take place in a political vacuum. The progressive prosecutor faces a recall election in June and is publicly arguing with local law enforcement.
The clash between his office and the police department escalated this month after a trial began against Terrance Stangel, a former police officer facing battery charges for beating a man with a truncheon. in 2019. This is the first excessive force case against an on-duty San Francisco police officer to go to trial.
Earlier this month, Scott ended an agreement to cooperate in the district attorney’s investigations into police shootings, deaths in custody and uses of force resulting in serious injury due to concerns about impartiality. from the office.
Boudin denied violating the agreement, and the two have since pledged to renegotiate it with the help of the state’s attorney general and San Francisco’s mayor and city attorney.
Reporting by Olga R. Rodriguez and Stefanie Dazio for The Associated Press.
Dazio reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in New York contributed to this report.