The San Francisco rape victim DNA database debacle

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

The San Francisco Police Department is being accused of improperly accessing a DNA database to identify suspects in criminal investigations. The database in question is comprised of samples taken from victims of rape and sexual assault, making it a very sensitive issue. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is quite irate about this and wants the practice to be stopped immediately. We’ve covered Boudin quite a bit here and almost never for anything that he’s done well in his job, but in this case, he just may have a point. (NBC News)

The San Francisco Police Department is accused of using DNA from sexual assault victims to identify possible crime suspects in a practice that the city’s district attorney called “legally and ethically wrong.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said in a statement Monday that his office had demanded an immediate end to the alleged practice that he said “treats victims like evidence, not human beings.”

The DA’s office that the police department’s crime lab tried to identify suspects by searching a database with DNA collected from rape and sexual assault victims.

In case any of you fell under the same misunderstanding that I did at first, we should clarify what the database actually contains. I was initially under the impression that the DNA samples were all from the perpetrators of the sexual assaults, collected as part of the rape kit that is generated when victims go for medical attention. But in this case, there are genetic samples from the victims themselves. And it’s those samples that were being checked by the police.

If the cops were looking at the DNA of known rapists and trying to match it up to solve other crimes, I’d have no problem with that. But in one example cited by the DA’s office, a DNA sample from a rape test years ago “was used to link a woman to a recent property crime.” So it wasn’t the rapist who was connected to the property crime, but the rape victim herself.

I’m not sure where this would land if the victim who later became an alleged criminal herself challenged the use of the DNA sample in court, but it sounds highly dubious at a minimum. If you go to the hospital as part of reporting a crime committed against you, you likely are not expecting any evidence you turn over to be used against you later. Honestly, I didn’t even know they collected any medical evidence from the victim that would be used to create a DNA profile, at least under normal circumstances. I suppose if the rape resulted in a pregnancy and there was a question of paternity it might be needed, but other than that, why would you be creating a DNA profile of the victim to begin with?

The SFPD Chief is arguing that this practice might provide a disincentive for women to come forward and report sexual assaults. That strikes me as unlikely unless the victim is already a practicing criminal. But it still sounds like this is something the police shouldn’t be doing and the lab handling the samples shouldn’t be cooperating with.