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US woman says San Francisco police used ‘rape kit’ to arrest her

The lawsuit prompts calls for reform to prevent other police departments in the state from using rape kit DNA evidence.

A woman whose rape kit was allegedly used to arrest her for an unrelated burglary has sued the city of San Francisco in the United States, saying she was “re-victimised” by the controversial tactic.

The civil rights lawsuit filed on Monday is the latest update in a case that has prompted calls for reform to prevent other police departments in the state from using rape kit DNA evidence – provided by victims in the hope of identifying and catching their attacker – against the victims themselves.

The lawsuit follows a startling revelation by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in February that the city’s police department had used DNA collected in rape kits, which were maintained by the department’s crime laboratory, to search for suspects in unrelated crimes.

Sexual assault evidence collection kits, also known as rape kits, are used in the US to collect and store evidence following sexual assaults.

In the filing, the woman, identified as Jane Doe, said the rape kit evidence she had submitted following an assault six years earlier had been used to identify her as a suspect in the burglary. She was arrested in December of 2021. The charges were later dropped.

The lawsuit said the woman “never consented (for her DNA) to be stored or used for any other purpose” than catching her attacker.

“Nevertheless, the Department maintained Plaintiff Doe’s DNA in the database for more than six years,” the lawsuit said.

“During this time, the crime lab routinely ran crime scene evidence through this database that included Plaintiff’s DNA without ever attempting to get her consent or anyone else’s consent. Her DNA was likely tested in thousands of criminal investigations, though the police had absolutely no reason to believe that she was involved in any of the incidents.”

In a statement, the woman’s lawyer, Adante Pointer, said the “practice of using the DNA from rape victims and sexual assault victims to incriminate them in unrelated cases is not only ethically and legally wrong, but it destroys the very fabric of trust in the institutions that are supposed to protect such victims”.

“What sort of trust should this victim, and victims in the future, have in a city and in a police department that will unlawfully store their DNA and use it without their consent?”

District Attorney Boudin in February told the Washington Post newspaper that he was “horrified” to learn of the practice and that his office would not use DNA evidence collected from sexual assault victims to prosecute them for unrelated crimes.

At the time, he called the practice a “pretty clear” violation of the state’s constitution.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Police Department Chief William Scott told the American newspaper that the department’s DNA collection policies had been legally vetted and were in line with state and federal “forensic standards”.

However, he later said that following an investigation, the department had stopped using the practice, which he referred to as a “horrendous mistake” during a police commission meeting in March.

At the time, the department said it was conducting an audit of the practice which had turned up 17 other instances where victims’ DNA was identified in an unrelated crime, although none of those cases led to the victim’s arrest.

State legislators have since introduced legislation that would prohibit using rape victims’ DNA in other criminal investigations. However, it was not clear if any other police departments in California also used the practice.

California is among several US states that have been criticised for a backlog in processing rape kits, which advocates say has delayed justice for hundreds of thousands of victims.

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