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A closer look at sexual assault forensic evidence in Idaho

The battle to fight for victims of sexual assault is ongoing in Idaho. From medical attention to sexual assault evidence kits, and putting laws in place to protect the victims.

In the 2016 session, legislators set standards for tracking forensic evidence of sexual assault victims, because it was brought to their attention that some were not being processed properly.

To 2017, part of House bill 176 worked on preservation, requiring local agencies store sexual assault evidence kits for 55 years.

And just this week, a new bill came to the floor, that, if made into law, will exempt victims from having to pay for the gathering of forensic evidence in their cases.

“For example, we don’t charge burglary victims for fingerprint evidence to be taken. We don’t charge families of homicide for blood spatter tests. That’s the evidence we’re talking about here. And in the case of sexual assault, they shouldn’t be charged either,” said Idaho House Rep. Wendy Horman.

The process of gathering evidence for sexual assault cases starts in the exam room. Victims can visit the emergency room or come to a place like the domestic violence center in Idaho Falls.

“We do a head-to-toe assessment, looking for an injury that may need follow up. Then we collect evidence as part of that medical exam. We package that evidence and we return it to the law enforcement,” said Kara Boll, the nurse coordinator for sexual assault nurses in the southeast Idaho area.

There are only four designated nurses, outside of select emergency room staff, who can gather sexual assault evidence in the southeast Idaho region.

“This is a difficult job and it can be wearing on nurses. We are always looking for more nurses, we’re always recruiting. Its on-call, so you come in sometimes at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Boll said.

When speaking on the floor for sexual assault victims, House Rep. Melissa Wintrow from Boise said, “How you treat evidence, is how you treat victims.”

“It is evidence so it has to maintain chain of custody. It has to be hand delivered to a law enforcement officer,” Boll said.

“This has been a focused journey over time to improve legislation statute around victims of sexual assault,” Horman said.

For preserving sexual assault evidence kits for 55 years, the law says, “The local agencies will likely incur little to no fiscal impact, depending on their existing storage accommodations,” Horman read.

However, for the Idaho Falls Police Department that cost won’t be so little. Local agencies have to soon make sure they’re equipped and more than ready to abide by the new requirements. Storage being the main question in issue.

“There’s just a compelling reason to save this stuff and to keep it so we can bring justice for victims,” said Chief Bryce Johnson, with Idaho Falls Police Department

The I.F.P.D. currently stores 14,000 items of forensic evidence, and the standard for sexual assault evidence kits is to refrigerate for preservation.

“We have three fridges and a small freezer where we currently store those items. And they are quickly come up to capacity,” said Chyanne Smith, the police department’s evidence technician.

In anticipation of the new law requiring sexual assault evidence kits to be kept for 55 years, the I.F.P.D. has budgeted for a new fridge. But, there’s an issue.

“Our biggest concern is where are we going to put it,” Smith said.

There is currently no way to expand the secured evidence room, aside from moving out the technicians’ desks. That will free up some space, but there’s no telling how much more evidence the I.F.P.D. will obtain over the years.

“That’s a really bad argument, ‘Hey, we can’t solve your case because we don’t have any storage in the police department.’ I don’t accept that argument. It doesn’t hold water. Whatever we got to do to get the space t store this evidence, we’ll figure it that out and do it,” Johnson said.

And with technology constantly changing, keeping forensic evidence for as long as possible is always a safe bet.

“Even kits that are tested today — are they truly tested? Because what are we going to be able to do 10 years from now? So you want to preserve some of that so you can come back and retest 10 years later when the technology is better,” said Johnson.

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