Rape kit testing bill moves forward in the House

February 14, 2019

BOISE — Legislation to improve Idaho’s rape kit testing and tracking was unanimously approved by the House Judiciary, Rules & Administration Committee on Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, requires all sexual assault and rape kits be tested, with few exceptions.

“I’m really excited,” Wintrow said. “This is really good public safety policy.”

Wintrow has passed a series of bills since 2016 to improve the state’s system of testing and tracking rape kits. The kits include DNA evidence, collected from a victim’s body and clothing after a sexual assault, which is then entered into a database. Previously, test rates varied greatly among law enforcement agencies, and backlogs of kits sat untested on shelves, the Idaho Press reported.

The latest bill, HB 116, requires law enforcement agencies to “make a good faith effort” to collect and submit reports associated with the collective sample, and requires medical agencies collecting the kit to document any information within the state kit tracking system. The only exception comes if the complaint is discovered as “unfounded,” when evidence shows there was no crime.

Wintrow said victims are still able to halt the prosecution process if desired, but the kit would still be tested so the information can be included in the national database.

In 2016, Wintrow sponsored a bill that was signed into law requiring that agencies track the kits and report how many go untested. However, the law doesn’t require the kits be tested, which caused some confusion among law enforcement agencies. The proposed bill would help alleviate that confusion and give comfort to sexual abuse victims, Wintrow said.

Wintrow has worked with several organizations to create this year’s “test-all” legislation. Among those who spoke in favor of the bill were representatives with the Idaho State Police, Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence and the Women and Children’s Alliance.

Matthew Gamette, laboratory system director for Idaho State Police Forensic Services, presented 2018 rape kit data to the committee. As of Dec. 31, he said, the longest anticipated turnaround time to test a kit was 495 days — the average turnaround time is about 208 days. ISP’s goal, he said, is to have a turnaround time of less than 30 days. Gamette said the lab also hopes to have all backlogged rape kits collected in 2018 processed by the end of this year.

“It’s going to be a big lift for us, but we’re going to make every effort that we can to get that done while working along with the other cases that are coming into the lab at the same time,” Gamette said.

Deputy prosecutor with the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office Jean Fisher spoke in favor of the bill and expressed that the more evidence collected, the more opportunity the state has to hold somebody accountable. In Ada County, there have been two cases in the last two years where a rape kit helped prosecutors identify someone suspected of assaulting multiple people.

“That in and of itself poses a big public safety issue,” Fisher said.

Improving rape kit testing and tracking has been a popular topic in the Idaho Legislature for several years. Wednesday’s vote is one step toward Wintrow’s effort to refine the state’s system. The bill heads to the full House for a vote. It would still need to pass the full Senate and receive the governor’s signature to become law.

“Testing all evidence is best practice,” Wintrow said. “Sometimes in legislation you have to start at ground level and work with folks and compromise and work toward a solution.”

Currently, Wintrow said Idaho is “leading the nation” in kit testing and tracking.

In 2017, Idaho became the first state in the country to fully implement an online tracking system for sexual assault kits. Wintrow also passed a bill in 2018 that ensured sexual assault victims wouldn’t be charged for the medical exams.

The rape kit laws, Wintrow said, help provide comfort for sexual assault victims statewide.

“When we say absolutely we’re going to test them all, that sends a message to victims that we believe you, we’re supporting you and we’re going to bring somebody to justice,” Wintrow said. “I think that sends a clear message to victims that they’re valued, they’re at the center of this.”