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Are Rape Kits Reliable Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 07, 2023

Criminal cases involving sexual assault or rape charges are complex, often hinging on the collection and interpretation of physical evidence. One of the primary tools used to gather DNA evidence is the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK), commonly referred to as a "rape kit." 

If someone has accused you of California Penal Code 261 PC rape, there's a strong possibility that the alleged victim has undergone testing via a rape kit. If the test comes back matching your DNA, it can be a compelling piece of evidence for a guilty verdict.

Rape Kits in Sexual Assault Cases

However, these tests are not foolproof, and many factors must be handled correctly to be considered reliable. A skilled California criminal defense attorney can evaluate the evidence and the handling of the SAEK to determine whether errors occurred and whether you can challenge the test's admissibility in court.

The existence of DNA evidence in a sexual assault or rape case, or more important, the lack of such evidence, can significantly impact the outcome of a criminal trial. 

Notably, DNA is not always considered conclusive proof of a rape or sexual assault. DNA evidence could also prove a defendant's innocence and is often crucial to winning a case and reducing a sentence. 

Knowing how to use DNA evidence at trial effectively is often challenging. Suppose you have been accused of committing PC 261 rape. In that case, you should immediately consult with an experienced sex crimes defense lawyer who knows how to challenge such evidence effectively.

What Is a "Rape Kit?"

A Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK), also called a "rape kit" or Sexual Assault Kit (SAK), is a collection of items used by medical professionals to preserve physical evidence following a reported sexual assault. 

The kit typically includes swabs, bags, and documentation forms to collect and preserve evidence from the body and clothing of the person who has reported the assault. 
A healthcare professional, typically a specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) or a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE), administers the test, which includes a thorough physical examination and the collection of biological samples.

The SAEK procedure is intended to be administered immediately after the alleged incident. In California, the law allows collecting evidence up to 120 hours (or five days) after the assault. 

However, the sooner the kit is administered, the higher the likelihood of collecting viable evidence. Additionally, once the evidence is collected and preserved, the SAEK test must be processed within 120 days of being administered for the results to be considered viable.

What is DNA Evidence?

The term “DNA” stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. It's a self-replicating element of our body's chromosomes and carries unique genetic information. Everybody has a different DNA, except for identical twins. There are two types of DNA. 

What is DNA Evidence?

One is found in bodily fluids, such as semen, saliva, and blood. Another type comes from skin cells. DNA is often used to help identify the presence of someone at a particular place or personal interaction with someone else. 

In cases of rape or sexual assault, DNA is often gathered at the scene of a crime where bodily fluids could be present. DNA can also be collected from the body and clothing of the victim. To rule out people, police will often take DNA samples from friends, family, or suspects who may have had contact with the victim within 24 hours of the crime. 

Gathering DNA from the body of a victim by medical personnel usually occurs soon after the alleged crime happens. Examiners are trained to complete “rape kits,” where they use medical tools to gather DNA samples. 

It's essential for any DNA evidence not to be disturbed until the victim can be examined, so they are typically advised not to use the bathroom, bathe, change clothes, or clean their fingernails. 

For DNA to be accepted as evidence in a sex crime trial, it must be gathered properly by trained investigators and gathered by a proper chain of custody to maintain its integrity and reliability.

Forensic scientists can analyze DNA and use the profile to try and match the results to offender records in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This is often useful when the identity of a perpetrator is unknown. 

DNA analysis is also convenient for attempting to match DNA with a specific person who has been accused. If the suspect is not listed in CODIS, the court can order a DNA sample to be taken.

What Factors Can Affect the Reliability of a Rape Kit Test?

While SAEKs play a crucial role in sexual assault investigations, their reliability can be influenced by several factors, any of which could weaken their admissibility in court. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Timeframe of Administration: The period between the alleged incident and the administration of the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit can significantly affect its reliability. Optimal evidence is usually collected within 72 hours of the assault, although in California, tests can be administered up to 120 hours post-assault.
  • Examiner's Expertise: The skills and experience of the healthcare professional administering the SAEK are crucial. Inaccuracies during the collection, labeling, or preservation of samples can compromise the validity of the results.
  • Chain-of-Custody Procedures: Proper handling, storage, and documentation of the SAEK are essential to maintain its integrity. Mistakes made during the collection, preservation, or documentation of the evidence—as well as how the evidence is handed off from party to party—can compromise the integrity of the kit, potentially leading to false positives or negatives.
  • Preservation of Evidence: The conditions under which the evidence is stored can affect its quality. Biological samples need to be kept at specific temperatures to prevent degradation.
  • Cross-contamination Risk: Cross-contamination occurs during the collection or analysis stages if strict protocols are not adhered to, potentially leading to wrongful identification.
  • Sample Quality: The quality of the biological sample collected can impact the reliability of the test. Factors such as the victim's hygiene practices, the presence of substances like lubricants or condoms, and the type of assault can all influence the quality of the sample.

How Can You Challenge the Admissibility of Rape Kit Evidence?

The introduction of rape kit evidence does not automatically lead to a conviction. An experienced defense attorney will scrutinize the processes of collecting, preserving, and analyzing the SAEK. If any irregularities or procedural errors are identified, the attorney can challenge the admissibility of the evidence in court.

For instance, if the attorney can demonstrate that the SAEK was administered outside the recommended timeframe by an inexperienced examiner or that the chain-of-custody procedures were not strictly followed, they may be able to cast doubt on the reliability of the evidence. 

This could lead to the evidence being dismissed or its weight being reduced, thereby influencing the case outcome.

What a Rape Kit Cannot Show

While a rape kit can provide DNA evidence and possibly evidence of injury, there are other critical elements of an alleged crime that the SAEK will not show. These include:

  • Consent: A SAEK test cannot determine whether the sexual act was consensual or not. It only provides physical evidence that can corroborate or dispute accounts of what occurred.
  • Time of Assault: The test cannot definitively establish the exact time when the sexual assault took place.
  • Number of Assailants: In cases involving multiple alleged assailants, the SAEK may not accurately determine the number of individuals involved.
  • Severity of Assault: The test cannot measure the severity or violence of the assault. It can only document physical injuries and biological evidence, which do not necessarily correlate with the level of trauma experienced by the victim.

Sometimes, DNA evidence is unusable or corrupt if the samples of bodily fluids are not collected properly. Even if the integrity of samples can be confirmed, DNA evidence can only support specific facts. For example, if DNA belonging to the defendant is found at the scene of the crime or on the body of the victim, it only confirms they spent time together. 

Contact our California criminal defense lawyers to review the case details. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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