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Minnesota legislators push to test, securely store all rape kits

Minnesota Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, at a Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020 news conference presented a bill that would require the state to test all unrestricted rape kits. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

ST PAUL — Legislators and advocates say it's "time to stand up for victims" with a new bill that would require Minnesota's state crime lab to test all unrestricted rape kits.

Unanimously passed out of the Minnesota House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee on Tuesday, Feb. 18, House File 2983 would require law enforcement to test every rape kit, the only exception being if it were "restricted," meaning the survivor did not consent to its testing. The bill would also require the state crime lab to store untested rape kits at a central location for more than two years after collection, and record data from the kits in a centralized database.

With recent reports of hundreds of backlogged, untested rape kits being discovered in Minneapolis, the bill's prime author state Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, said at a Tuesday, Feb. 18, news conference that the bill sends the message that "finally, victims will have justice" after not always being taken seriously by law enforcement.

"The more I dig into this, the more I hear that as kind of a pervasive permeation through the whole system, that they weren't taken seriously," O'Neill said. "That culture absolutely needs to change. We are here collectively (...) saying it's time to stop. We are ready to move forward and test all the kits."

With over 400 unique law enforcement agencies in the state, O'Neill said the bill will also allow agencies to pick up on patterns and repeat perpetrators throughout the state that may have otherwise gone undetected.

And if a survivor doesn't want their kit to be tested right away, the bill gives them time, requiring the state crime lab to store untested kits for 30 months. The database formed through HF 2983 would allow survivors to unrestrict their kit for testing, and keep up with their kit's status.

Artika Roller, the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the bill's provisions on storage and allowing survivors to track their case help to eliminate potential biases, and make law enforcement accountable, transparent and consistent — with an end goal of increasing survivors' faith in the system.

"Anytime a victim can track what’s going on with their kit, it allows them an opportunity to be empowered and also to understand that the system is actually moving forward," she said. "There’s not a mystery about what’s going on."

The bill does not yet have a fiscal note, but O'Neill said Tuesday that one should be completed within one or two days. More testing and storage means the state would need to add more staff at its crime lab. The bill is making its way to the House Ways and Means committee.

Dubbing Tuesday Survivor Advocacy Day, the public safety committee passed three additional bills regarding sexual assault investigation and victims services: House File 3218 requiring alleged sexual misconduct by peace officers be investigated, House File 3070 increasing penalties for human traffickers and House File 464 funding rehabilitative services for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Many of the legislators and advocates wore teal, the color for sexual violence awareness. HF 3218 prime sponsor Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, said at Tuesday's committee hearing that working against sexual violence is not a partisan issue.

"Today, we’re not red. We’re not blue," she said. "We’re teal."