MONTGOMERY — A proposed House bill would create a sexual assault survivor “bill of rights” and establish how long evidence from sexual assault cases should be preserved.
Rep. Chip Brown, R-Hollinger’s Island, is sponsoring HB 137, which is scheduled to be considered in the House on Tuesday.
“My whole purpose of this legislation is to try and protect sexual assault victims and help bring perpetrators and criminals to justice,” Brown said.
The bill creates certain rights for sexual assault victims:
• To not be prevented from or billed for receiving a medical forensic examination;
• To have the sexual assault evidence collection kit preserved without charge for at least 20 years or, if the assault occurred while a minor, until age 40;
• To be informed by law enforcement of test results, such as DNA profile matches, from the examination kit if such information does not compromise or impede an investigation;
• To receive notification from a law enforcement agency at least 60 days before a sexual assault evidence kit is disposed of or destroyed;
• To be granted preservation of an evidence kit for an additional 20 years, if the survivor requests.
The bill doesn’t mandate how soon a sexual assault or rape kit must be processed, but Brown said he is open to looking at that kind of provision.
The bill also sets up a Sexual Assault Task Force responsible for developing and implementing best practices regarding the care and treatment of survivors and the preservation of evidence. The task force would include law enforcement representatives, elected officials, victims’ advocates, medical professionals and others.
The legislation also stipulates that sexual assault survivors will be informed by police about their rights for protection orders, availability of sexual assault advocates, policies regarding preserving and disposing of evidence, the process to request test results from an evidence kit and the availability of funds to cover medical costs related to the case.
Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Angelo Della Manna said he is supportive of the legislation in its current form.
“Any time you provide sexual assault victims with assurance that their evidence is appropriately protected and preserved so that forensic testing can occur on it, I think that’s a good thing,” Della Manna said.
There is currently no state statute for how long sexual assault kits have to be kept.
In 2020 alone, Della Manna says, his department received evidence from more than 2,000 sexual assault cases. He said the average time it takes for a kit to be processed is 90 days, but in some rush cases it can be sooner depending on the public health threat and conditions of the evidence.
Della Manna couldn’t say how many rape kits are currently backlogged in Alabama but in 2019, Jefferson County alone had over 3,000 untested rape kits, Birmingham Watch reported.
Last year, the forensics department was able to help solve 806 previously unidentified perpetrators in sexual assault cases, Della Manna said.
Della Manna said he cautions against putting a time constraint on how soon a rape kit has to be tested once the state has it because kit samples can vary in difficulty for being processed, which could put some criminal cases in jeopardy of being dismissed.
“If it can’t get done in 90 days, you’ve created an opportunity for that case to be dismissed in criminal court,” Della Manna said. “So even though it’s a well-intended idea, putting a hard date on that could present problems downstream.”
Amanda Nguyen is the CEO and founder of Rise, a nonprofit organization that worked with Brown to create the bill and works to protect sexual assault and rape survivors.
Nguyen, who is also a sexual assault survivor from Massachusetts, said fixing the backlog problem is important but wants to focus first on keeping the kits from being destroyed in the first place.
“So much news has been about the backlogs, but in my case, I had six months to make sure it could even be tested and testing wouldn’t be possible if that kit didn’t exist,” Nguyen said.
Della Manna said an increase in department funding to provide more certified personnel and DNA chemical resources is needed if Alabama wants to increase the speed at which kits are processed.
Since Della Manna has been at the department, he has received over $25 million in federal grants to help specifically with clearing out Alabama’s backlog of rape kits.
Similar legislation to Brown’s passed the Senate in 2019 but failed to reach the House before the session ended.
Travis Chin is a native Alabamian who works with Rise and said the Alabama legislation is simply trying to supply basic rights to sexual assault survivors.
“Survivors lack some of the ... civil rights that are afforded to other victims and even some criminals under the Constitution,” Chin said. “I don’t believe justice should just be left in a box to die in the back of a room. It should be fulfilled.”