A system that would track the location and status of rape testing kits would help law enforcement agencies cooperate on investigations of sexual assaults, the sponsor of a bill requiring a system in Maine said.
The tracking system would provide information on the location of test kits that aren’t processed by the state’s crime lab, said Rep. John J. Picchiotti, R-Fairfield, who sponsored a bill to set up the tracking plan.
He said kits in which the victim knows the assailant, cases where the assailant is going to plead guilty or investigations where other evidence is overwhelming are often not processed. Those kits are usually retained by local police, he said, but could be of use in investigations of other sexual assaults in other jurisdictions.
The kits are used to collect evidence following a rape or sexual assault. Often, material with the assailant’s DNA can provide a positive identification of the attacker.
Four other states have taken steps similar to what Picchiotti is proposing and only in Idaho is the system up and running, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Picchiotti said local police currently have few ways to share information on rapes and sexual assaults. He likens it to the situation before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when, experts said, intelligence agencies failed to share information that might have alerted them to the plot before it happened.
“It’s just everyone talking to each other,” he said of his proposal for a tracking system.
Software for a computerized tracking system would probably cost about $40,000, according to state estimates, and the system would cost about $120,000 a year to operate.
Picchiotti said federal grants might be available to offset part or all of the cost.
But Destie Hohman Sprague, the associate director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the state doesn’t seem to have a major problem processing rape kits that are needed in prosecutions, so she’s not sure if the law is needed for kits that aren’t used.
Sprague testified before Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee’s public hearing on Picchiotti’s bill Wednesday, but didn’t take a position for or against the proposal.
She said the state is doing a better job of protecting the rights of victims of sexual violence, but she doesn’t think the issue of how to handle rape kits that aren’t tested has come up often, if at all. Sprague said rape kits that are processed seem to be handled fairly quickly.
In cases where the kit isn’t processed, she said, state law mandates they be held at least 90 days.
But in reality, “they’re being stored essentially until departments run out of room,” so they are often accessible for long after the criminal is prosecuted.
The only opposition to the bill came from the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, which objected to a minor provision that dealt with immunity for law enforcement officers involved in operating the tracking system. Richard Thompson said immunity would be redundant, but the association was not opposed to the overall premise of the bill.
State police Lt. William Harwood, director of the state’s crime lab, also pointed out the cost of the measure to the committee and said that State Police could conduct a review of the process for handling untested kits if lawmakers preferred. But he, too, took no position either for or against the measure.
The committee will discuss the bill and vote at a future meeting.