Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act (S 2566, 114th Congress)

The Policy

What it does

Aims to specify rights for sexual assault survivors regarding medical forensic examinations and evidence collection kits, including being informed of a DNA profile match. 

Synopsis

This bill seeks to empower and honor sexual assault survivors by bestowing upon them new rights, notifications, and services. Its goal is to encourage more sexual assault survivors to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement investigations and prosecutions. S. 2566 accomplishes this by:

  • Including a deceased victim of sexual assault into the definition for sexual assault survivor;
  • Establishing new rights for sexual assault survivors by amending Criminal Procedure regulations (18 USC Part II), to include:
    • Not being prevented from, or charged for, receiving a medical forensic exam;
    • Having an evidence collection kit preserved, without charge, for the duration of the maximum applicable statute of limitations (in the event the government intends to destroy the kit before this time, the survivor may request to receive notification beforehand and also, upon written request, be granted further preservation of the kit);
    • Being informed of:
      • their rights, generally;
      • any result of an evidence kit, including a DNA profile match, so long as the disclosure would not compromise an ongoing investigation; and
      • policies governing the collection and preservation of an evidence collection kit.

The bill also amends the Victims Rights and Restitution Act of 1990 by specifying that responsible officials shall inform victims of available support, including sexual assault service providers, counseling, and national and local hotlines.

S. 2566 also amends the Victims of Crime Act of 1984. The Attorney General, in making Sexual Assault Survivors’ Notification Grants to states, will disseminate applicable rights for sexual assault victims; recipients will distribute written notice to survivors, relevant medical entities, and post the information on the state Attorney General’s public website.

The bill also:

  • Tasks the U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of Health and Human Services (“Secretary”) with establishment of a working group “to develop, coordinate, and disseminate best practices regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors and the preservation of forensic evidence.” The working group is responsible for submitting a report and recommended actions to the Attorney General, Secretary, and Congress within two years of the legislation’s enactment.
  • Prompts the Attorney General to encourage prosecutors to refrain from prosecuting sexual assault survivors for minor offenses, such as underage alcohol consumption, uncovered through a medical forensic examination. Survivors should be informed that they will not be prosecuted in such instances so they will feel more comfortable reporting crimes of sexual violence to law enforcement agencies. 

Context

<p>Although the use of sexual assault kits can identify perpetrators, the limited capacity of forensic science facilities often results in a backlog in processing sexual assault kits. Reasons may include:</p>

<ul>
<li>Many jurisdictions only tests cases where the assailant is unknown in efforts to identify a suspect through DNA evidence. However, it is possible that several cases with a known assailant have matched test results, which might indicate a pattern of serial sexual offenses.</li>
<li>Survivors may be hesitant to participate in DNA testing for reasons including fear of retaliation, fear of being treated poorly by the law enforcement agency or shame that the fact of the assault will become known to others, such as family and friends.</li>
<li>Survivors are often unaware of their rights regarding the handling of the sexual assault kit, such as the right to receive a thorough medical examination.</li>
<li>Some law enforcement agencies fail to submit the sexual assault evidence to the crime laboratory for DNA testing because they are unable to recognize post-traumatic behaviors including extreme calm reaction and rejection to talk, which are often contrary to the common belief of the reaction after the assault (i.e., crying).</li>
<li>Due to lack of funding and resources, many crime laboratories are unable to process all evidence from the thousands of crimes submitted to the laboratories each year, resulting in long turn-around times for testing.</li>
</ul>

<p>The measures of S. 2566 are already operational in most states. This bill codifies the practices in each state at a federal level, allowing for federal funding to address backlogs in sexual assault investigations.&nbsp;</p>

The Science

Science Synopsis

A sexual assault kit is a collection of evidence gathered from a victim by a medical professional, who is usually a specially trained nurse (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE)). The contents of a kit generally include swabs, blood collection tubes, microscope slides, a comb, and evidence collection envelopes for hairs and fibers. The victim is swabbed for any biological evidence that may contain the perpetrator’s DNA (e.g., skin, saliva, semen). The kit can then be investigated by the crime laboratory for biological evidence, along with other crime scene evidence, such as clothing, bed sheets, toxicology reports or weapons. A single kit contains many separate items of biological evidence that could be tested to determine the identity of the suspect.                   

The crime laboratory will examine the evidence for traces of semen, saliva, or other body fluids on the victim’s body and clothes, using chemical and blood (serology) tests. Microscope slides will be examined for the presence of sperm. Evidence from the sexual assault kit found to have semen or other biological fluids can be kept for DNA analysis. DNA is the molecule containing our genetic code. DNA testing involves the isolation of DNA from a biological sample (e.g., blood, saliva) and the creation of a DNA profile that is a unique identifier of an individual. The sexual assault victim’s DNA will be profiled to isolate her/his DNA from any other person’s DNA found on the evidence. If there is a suspect in the case, any foreign DNA profile will be compared to the DNA profile of the suspect. For cases without a suspect, any foreign DNA profile(s) will then be compared with DNA profiles in databases such as the COmbined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Relevant Experts

Sara Katsanis, MS is a Duke University instructor in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. Her research focuses on policies for DNA testing in law enforcement and human rights contexts.


The Debate

Endorsements & Opposition

Endorsement:

More broadly, supporters claim that by establishing a bill of rights for sexual assault victims, survivors are encouraged to report the crimes and thus lead to more efficient investigations. Victims also can be cared for and better treated if they receive information relevant to the policy and services.

Opposition:

  • There is no reported opposition to S. 2566.

In a more general context, many are unsettled by the backlogs of sexual assault kits. Victims’ advocacy organizations such as the Joyful Heart Foundation stated publicly that the backlog “represents a failure of the criminal justice system to protect survivors and to hold perpetrators accountable.”