A woman whose rape kit was used by San Francisco police to build a burglary case against her is suing the city for what her attorneys call an egregious civil rights violation.
The suit filed in federal court Monday under the alias “Jane Doe” says that SFPD, from at least 2015 until this year, ran DNA samples from sexual assault victims through a database that checked for matches from genetic material collected from a wide array of crime scenes.
Doe and her attorneys—Adante Pointer and colleagues from law firm Pointer & Buelna LLP—are demanding a jury trial in the U.S. Northern District of California for a practice they say violated her constitutional rights as well as those of an untold number of other sexual assault victims.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear if the police department completed a promised audit to review the scope of the practice.
“This case brings to light the San Francisco Police Department’s shocking practice of placing crime victims’ DNA into a permanent database without the victims’ knowledge or consent,” the lawsuit states. “There are reportedly thousands of people who are being subjected to this arbitrary, unlawful unconstitutional invasion of privacy.”
The lawsuit filed this week echoes many of the details Doe shared earlier this year when announcing plans to mount a legal challenge. It describes how she reported her rape to SFPD in November 2016 and submitted biological evidence collected by nurses and doctors as part of her sexual assault kit.
Nearly five years later, that DNA was used against her.
In December 2021, SFPD matched DNA collected in a burglary investigation with the biological samples from her rape kit and obtained a warrant for her arrest.
A month later, she said she called police to intervene in a domestic dispute she was having with her boyfriend. When officers showed up, she said they arrested her and let her boyfriend go.
“I was confused,” Doe, a mother in her 20s, told The Standard on condition of anonymity.
The burglary charges were eventually dropped after former District Attorney Chesa Boudin exposed what happened earlier this year. The woman was about to be arraigned when her attorney, Deputy Public Defender Will Helvestine, told her how police had used the rape kit to arrest her.
“I said, ‘Huh, can you tell me that again?’” she recounted. “I couldn’t believe it. Did he say what he really told me?"
She said she had no idea SFPD would keep her DNA and use it for other purposes—let alone to criminalize her.
“They might as well have put a leash around my neck and walked me like a dog,” she said, “because I’m getting treated like one.”
Doe said being arrested after summoning police for help during a domestic disturbance retraumatized her—not only by prompting flashbacks to her sexual assault but also to the death of her mother after suffering domestic violence.
“It’s just reliving trauma,” Doe said. “I was hurt again there. I just felt betrayed.”
Whatever the outcome of her federal case, Doe said she would like a personal apology for what she went through.
“I feel like someone needs to have taken action,” she said. “We’re all people, right?”
Since the public revelation that DNA was being used to prosecute victims, SFPD vowed to end the practice. The department also began a review to determine how long it should preserve genetic evidence.
The status of that proposed policy change and the inquiry into whether any other DNA matches led to arrests have yet to be made public.
SFPD, which as a policy does not comment on ongoing lawsuits, did not respond to questions about the audit or the new DNA retention timetable.
About a month after Doe went public with her story, however, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a measure to address the issue by barring police from storing crime scene DNA, including rape kits, in city databases for more than 60 days.
Meanwhile, similar state legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener passed both houses of the state legislature and awaits the governor's signature. Senate Bill 1228 prohibits the retention of DNA collected from victims by law enforcement — including rape kits for sexual assault survivors.
This is hardly the first time SPFD has found itself in hot water over the way it handles rape cases.
For years, the department failed to test rape kit DNA in a timely manner, which ostensibly meant potential perpetrators walked free. In 2017, SFPD announced it had finally cleared its decades-old backlog, though it’s unclear if that resulted in any prosecutions of rapists or exonerations of falsely accused suspects.
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org