By David M. Greenwald
Washington, DC – A week ago, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin alleged that the San Francisco PD crime lab had been uploading DNA from sexual assault victims to a database they use to identify suspects in other crimes—a process that could both unacceptably violate the privacy of sexual assault victims and also disincentivize survivors of sexual assault from coming forward.
On Tuesday leading Democratic Representative Adam Schiff asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to examine the “deeply concerning reports.
“While some details of this reported incident remain unclear, they merit your attention and action, because even the perception that law enforcement agencies are searching DNA profiles collected from sexual assault victims could have a chilling effect on willingness to report sexual assaults,” Schiff wrote.
According to a release from Schiff’s office, the FBI administers the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), and “the agency is uniquely positioned to prevent any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency from improperly uploading DNA profiles obtained from crime victims.”
Schiff also indicated he will explore legislative remedies to this potential violation of law.
“Though there are still many unanswered questions about the extent of this practice, the fact it may have occurred at all is deeply disturbing. I fear it will have a chilling effect on sexual assault reporting.…” wrote Schiff. “Any perception among victims that law enforcement views them as a potential offender could further reduce already low rates of reporting of sexual assaults.”
According to the Department of Justice’s 2020 Criminal Victimization Report, more than 300,000 individuals were raped or sexually assaulted in 2020. However, less than 23 percent of those assaults were reported to police, down nearly 34 percent from 2019.
Schiff urged Wray to investigate the reporting and asked the FBI to report back on the following questions:
- Do current federal laws and regulations permit law enforcement agencies to upload DNA profiles obtained from crime victims to the National DNA Index System’s offender database?
- If so, what is the extent of this practice, and do you plan to prohibit it and expunge any profiles uploaded?
- Some states and localities maintain DNA databases separate from the NDIS. Does the FBI have the authority to prohibit the use of CODIS to hold samples obtained from crime victims in an offender or arrestee database?
- Will you seek to communicate to state and local law enforcement agencies why holding a DNA profile from a crime victim in this way, particularly a sexual assault victim, will have a chilling effect on reporting of rapes and sexual assaults?
The San Francisco DA’s office did not offer further comment on Tuesday.
Boudin’s spokesperson Rachel Marshall did tweet, “So glad to see leaders like @RepAdamSchiff responding urgently to this terrible practice exposed by DA @chesaboudin last week. We’ll keep fighting to protect the privacy of sexual assault survivors and to remove barriers to reporting rape.”
At a press conference last week, Supervisor Hillary Rosen pointed out, “Remember, you are just violated in the most brutal and intimate way. And if you decide to come forward and report that crime, you have to go to a hospital and have an invasive medical examination at the worst moments of your life, when all you want to do is take a shower and get any presence of your attacker off your body.
“But instead you have to preserve the evidence. You have to go to the hospital, you have to get a rape kit, then you have to be investigated by the police and you have to potentially stand trial and tell your story to the public. It is so burdensome to report rape. It is so hard that it doesn’t happen very often.”
For his part, Boudin condemned the practice.
“We, we have very grave concerns about the legality of this practice, particularly under Marsy’s law, which is the California crime victims bill,” said Boudin.
As Boudin noted, rape and sexual assault are “some of the most serious crimes that we see. They’re also some of the most underreported crimes. They’re also some of the crimes that are historically the hardest to prosecute precisely because of the kind of barriers that we’re here to talk about today.”
Boudin pointed out that “thousands of rape kits have gone untested altogether” in San Francisco and elsewhere. And this practice means that women “who came forward to courageously cooperate with law enforcement to submit their body to an invasive procedure in one of their most vulnerable moments” have had their trust “abused,” “not just by the San Francisco police department, crime lab, but we have reason to believe by labs all across the state of California in a practice that has been described as routine.”