A recent Star Tribune special report on sexual assault (“When rape is reported and nothing happens,” July 22) demonstrates that there is a significant amount of work yet to do to protect victims of sexual assault and violence. It will take all of us — lawmakers, law enforcement and advocates — to ensure that victims are listened to and that our justice system works for them.

 

To ensure that survivors of sexual assault receive justice, one key step is how we handle sexual assault examination kits. A law I championed earlier this year takes effect on Wednesday, and I believe it provides a significant step forward to enhance victims’ rights, provide clarity to law enforcement and hospitals, and ensure timely action on these kits to deliver critical evidence in cases of sexual assault.

In 2015, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension completed an audit of untested sexual assault examination kits in Minnesota, finding that across the state there were nearly 3,500 untested kits. As a legislator, a mother of a daughter, and someone who has worked to strengthen state law to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence, it was incredibly disheartening to see such a high number. We had to act and make sure something like this does not happen again.

Thankfully, working with victim advocacy groups, law enforcement, health care professionals and lawmakers, I advanced a comprehensive, bipartisan new law that will make a real difference going forward.

First, the law will require law enforcement to retrieve an unrestricted sexual assault examination kit (meaning the patient has authorized law enforcement to submit the kit to a forensic laboratory for testing) within 10 days. Then, within 60 days, law enforcement must submit that kit for testing. This change still allows some flexibility, and if law enforcement believes the kit does not add evidentiary value — if, say, there is a confession — then they do not have to submit the kit for testing. Police still would, however, need to make a record with the county attorney and share why the kit did not add evidentiary value to the case. Taking this route will ensure that all kits in need of testing are submitted to a lab, without unnecessarily overwhelming the system with the ones that do not need to be tested. Finally, exam kits must also be stored for a minimum of 18 months under the appropriate chain of custody.

And just as important as it was to set clear guidelines for law enforcement on handling these kits, this legislation also ensures that victims are able to more easily track their kits through what can be an overwhelming and complicated process. A victim or a victim’s designee may request in writing the date their kit was submitted to a laboratory and whether a DNA profile was obtained from the testing. What’s more, law enforcement agencies are required to respond to inquiries within 30 days and provide liaison services between the agency and the forensic lab.

Finally, an assault is a traumatic and overwhelming experience, and for a number of reasons a victim may initially choose not to release their kit for testing. That’s why this law also creates a procedure that allows a person to more easily navigate the system and reclassify their sexual assault examination kits from restricted to unrestricted if they choose to come forward at a later date.

Victims of sexual violence deserve justice. They have the right to be heard and defended. They have the right to a legal system that holds their rapist accountable. I, and my fellow House Republicans, will continue to champion reforms and new laws that better serve Minnesotans who are victims of sexual assault. While there is still significant work to be done to address and stop sexual violence in Minnesota, I believe this new law is a crucial step in the right direction that will provide procedural clarity to law enforcement and put power back in the hands of survivors who choose to move forward with an investigation and seek justice.

 

Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, is a member of the Minnesota House.