Pennsylvania has a ‘patchwork’ of local policies for storing rape kits and collecting anonymous evidence. A new law could change that

Governor Tom Wolf signed six victims' rights bills inside the Governor's Reception Room at the State Capitol building in Harrisburg on Monday, July 15, 2019.

When a sexual assault occurs in Pennsylvania’s Cambria County, responders follow a detailed local protocol for collecting evidence, storing it, and notifying victims when it’s due to be destroyed.

But travel to neighboring Clearfield County, and that local protocol may differ. So, too, may the options available to a victim who wants to anonymously submit evidence of a rape, without pressing charges.

Pennsylvania is home to a patchwork of local policies governing the storage of sexual assault evidence and the collection of anonymous rape kits. 

While state law provides standards for collecting forensic rape evidence, local police departments and county district attorney offices get to decide how long to keep that evidence, and how to notify victims when it’s discarded. 

A bill that Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law in June will change that. 

It will require all rape kits collected in Pennsylvania to be stored until the applicable statute of limitations on the incident expires. That’s 12 years for adult rape victims. Child victims have until they’re 30 years old to press charges. 

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The law will also require all police departments to collect anonymous submissions of rape evidence from victims who don’t wish to file police reports.

That’s something that sexual violence prevention advocates say is essential for victims who aren’t immediately ready to report their rapes to law enforcement.

The changes are part of a so-called Victims Bill of Rights, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, that mirrors federal legislation that passed in 2016.

“This make [policies] uniform throughout the Commonwealth,” Langerholc said Wednesday.  “A sexual assault in Clearfield County should be treated with same procedures as sexual assault in Cambria County,” he added, naming two counties in his Senate district.

State law previously required local police departments to hold onto rape kits for a minimum of two years. 

Even though adult rape victims have 12 years to report their crime to the police, they won’t be able to seek justice if the evidence of their crime has been destroyed.

“We want to preserve all the evidence we can and provide all the rights and remedies we can to anyone that’s a victim of sexual assault if they take time to come forward,” Langerholc, a former county prosecutor, said. “We want to have that evidence there.”

There’s a very small window of time in which evidence from an assault is viable, since the evidence can degrade if a victim showers or changes clothes, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. 

Even though they have to act quickly to submit evidence of a rape, many victims aren’t ready to press charges immediately after an assault occurs, Houser said. That’s why some victims submit their evidence anonymously, without filing a police report.

If and when a victim decides to press charges, the evidence from their case should be intact, Houser said.

Langerholc’s legislation is one of two bills that could change a victim’s experience of reporting and prosecuting a rape in Pennsylvania. Both were part of a package of victims rights bills that the General Assembly passed in June. 

The other bill, introduced by state House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, expands Pennsylvania’s Rape Shield Law, which protects victims from certain lines of questioning in court. 

Existing state law prohibits attorneys from asking victims about their past sexual conduct in court. The law was crafted to prevent defense attorneys from denigrating the character of a victim as a trial strategy, Houser said. 

However, past instances of victimization — such as a previous rape report to law enforcement — aren’t considered part of a victim’s previous “conduct” in the eyes of the court, according to Greg Rowe, director of the Pennsylvania Association of Defense Attorneys.

As a result, attorneys are able to ask victims about previous sexual assaults, even if they aren’t relevant to the case under investigation. While it doesn’t happen in every sexual assault trial, prosecutors who try assault cases said it’s a “consistent” problem, Rowe said. 

Under the new law, a defense attorney can still bring up a past victimization if it’s relevant to the case. But they’ll have to file a motion making that case to a judge, Rowe said.

Houser said the new law creates an important protection for many assault victims. 

“It’s not unusual that people have multiple victimizations throughout their lifetimes, and if one [incident] was documented it could be presented in a way that casts doubt on a victim’s credibility,” Houser said. “This bill closes a loophole.”

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