House passes bill to reform handling of sexual assault cases

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The House easily approved legislation on Tuesday to ensure sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have access to forensic evidence collection kits.

Passed 399-0, the bipartisan bill known as the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act would guarantee the materials to gather and preserve physical evidence, also known as rape kits, to sexual assault survivors.

Survivors would further have the ability to request preservation of the kits for the duration of the maximum statute of limitations, and to be informed of any test results from the kits. The bill would also ensure that survivors don’t have to pay for the evidence collection.

{mosads}California Reps. Mimi Walters (R) and Zoe Lofgren (D), who introduced the bill, said the measure would help establish a standard for people who face varying laws surrounding sexual assault cases in jurisdictions across the country. Creating uniform guidelines at the federal level could push states to adopt similar measures, they argued.

“The uneven patchwork of laws across the country and the lack of substantive rights for sexual assault survivors prevent them from having full access to the justice system,” Walters said on the House floor. 

“Survivors of sexual assault have faced unspeakable trauma, and they should not face unnecessary barriers to justice.”

The legislative change has been pushed by sexual assault survivors such as Washington, D.C., resident Amanda Nguyen, who has to extend preservation of her rape kit every six months in Massachusetts because of state laws that allow it to otherwise destroy the evidence kit if the crime isn’t reported within that time.

Nguyen, according to a People profile, hasn’t officially pressed charges for the 2013 rape because she works outside of Massachusetts and says she doesn’t have the time or resources right now for a trial lasting months or even years.

The statute of limitations for sexual assault cases in Massachusetts is 15 years, meaning Nguyen could formally report the crime several years from now — even though her rape kit is at risk of being destroyed before then.

“I can’t wait for the day I can write to the forensic lab and say, ‘This is the law,’ and I will no longer need to do this. You can’t destroy my rape kit anymore – you can’t destroy anybody’s,” Nguyen told People.

A virtually identical bill authored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) passed the Senate unanimously in May.

The version passed by the House on Tuesday will be reconciled with some technical differences in Shaheen’s bill before heading to President Obama’s desk. 
“Today’s vote is a significant step forward for survivors of sexual assault who must navigate the complex maze of our criminal justice system to seek their right to justice,” Shaheen said in a statement. 
Updated 9:29 p.m
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