San Francisco woman sues city for violation of rights

Violation of law does not equal violation of rights

Looking for a controversial conversation topic this Thanksgiving dinner? Look no further than this past September’s case of the San Francisco resident who sued the city for using the DNA from her sexual assault case to charge her for an unrelated crime. I hope you’re ready for a robust table discussion about privacy, rights of victims and the overreach of the law.

The woman in question, who will be referred to as Jane Doe, was charged with a property crime charge in 2021 when her DNA, which she willingly submitted in 2016 during a domestic violence/sexual assault case, was used to identify her as the culprit of a retail robbery. Jane Doe’s DNA had been kept in a database within the San Francisco Police Department, despite her assault case being dismissed. The practice of keeping DNA from sexual assault cases to be used for future criminal profiling is a common one with the San Francisco Police Department, a practice that the then-San Francisco District Attorney vehemently denounced. Once it was made public that the property crime charge was made on the basis of Jane Doe’s DNA from her assault case, the DA dropped the charges.

Due to the filing of the lawsuit against the city and the outrage of hundreds of survivors, advocates and lawmakers, California has since then approved a bill that will prohibit the use of DNA from sexual assault cases in the investigation of any other crime. There are federal regulations against hoarding sexual assault-related DNA profiles in a national database, but none for individual state databases. A law that one would think we would already have, since it strongly pertains to the Fourth Amendment (protecting citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures if you need a refresher).

This kind of case seems like one that would only happen in a futuristic society, where our every move is tracked and we are charged for crimes via facial recognition security cams. But no, this case is very much present day, and calls for a discussion about privacy infringement. Privacy is especially deserved in sexual assault cases, as the survivor requires the guarantee of privacy for safety and security. Reporting such a traumatic event already requires much courage on the part of the survivor, but if there was a possibility that your DNA would be used against you when it should be used to protect you, the already low number of reported sexual assaults would sink even more, as survivors would be discouraged from reporting their assault. I would even claim that without the right to privacy and protection of any report and/or evidence (which includes DNA profiles), no one would report their sexual assault.

I can hear the claims from Uncle Jerry or Grandpa Joe (sorry if I just insulted your relatives) saying, “Well if they didn’t want to be caught by their DNA, then they shouldn’t commit the crime in the first place.” That is simply beside the point, Grandpa Joe! Yes, breaking the law is bad and if you do the crime, you do the time, etc. etc., but those who commit crimes should be punished only for their choice to commit said crimes, NOT for their choice to report their sexual assault. One can choose to commit a crime, but no one chooses to be sexually assaulted.

The prosecution of criminals is a part of our justice system and there should be laws in place to hold people accountable, but these laws should not depend upon exploiting those who have been sexually assaulted. Two wrongs do not make a right as they say, and using DNA evidence unjustly should not be within the power of law enforcement. Law enforcement should not be above the law or beyond ethics (a concept that should be obvious, but we all know it is not); utilizing private and personal information to charge those with crimes not only goes against the rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment (I’ll toss in the Fifth Amendment as well, as your DNA being used against you is on the same level as being a witness against yourself), but it also further antagonizes those who have already been sexually assaulted.

We may be on our way to living in a surveillance state (many would argue we’re already there), but we must not look the other way when the rights of anyone are overruled by the government, and especially not the rights of those who have been made vulnerable by the unjust actions of others.

Post Author: Mary Lickona