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Anonymous Sexual Assault Medical/Forensic Examinations—New Hampshire

Overview
In 1989, the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office formed the Sexual Assault Protocol Committee, representing the medical, legal, law enforcement, victim advocacy, and forensic science communities, for the purpose of establishing a New Hampshire protocol and forensic exam kit. The committee made recommendations based on the physical and emotional needs of sexual assault victims, reasonably balanced with the basic requirements of the legal system.

In 1998, New Hampshire created a system of anonymous evidence collection. With the anonymous system, each kit is given a unique serial number. That serial number is used in place of a patient's identifiable information (e.g., name, date of birth) on all evidence collection kit forms, as well as on the outside of the kit. Completed kits are given to law enforcement after patients are discharged from examining hospitals, and law enforcement delivers the kits to the crime lab after creating case numbers and files.

The crime lab preserves evidence but does not analyze any portion of the evidence. Victims have 3 months to report the crime to law enforcement. If a report is not filed after 3 months, the crime lab sends the evidence back to the jurisdictionally appropriate law enforcement agency where the evidence is housed indefinitely or destroyed, depending on local policy. In 2005, the protocol and kit were updated through New Hampshire's multidisciplinary process. The window of anonymous evidence collection and maintenance was decreased to 60 days, based on findings that most victims make their decision to report within this period.

Goals

  • Decrease the likelihood of a chain of custody breach by decreasing the amount of time evidence is stored at the hospital.
  • Increase the probability of having biological evidence in cases in which victims initially choose not to report to law enforcement but later change their minds.
  • Increase options available to victims.

Making the Idea a Reality
Creating the protocol was a relatively simple process with unanimous agreement by the New Hampshire Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Advisory Board. Implementing the protocol was more challenging.

Learning is a fluid process. Multidisciplinary training of law enforcement, medical professionals, and crisis center advocates took place throughout the state on multiple occasions. Law enforcement personnel needed to be trained on the new protocol, as well as on their role in accepting and delivering the kits to the crime lab without seeking further information about the crime. Medical professionals and advocates needed to be trained on the new option that could be offered to victims.

Additionally, the committee, in conjunction with the Attorney General's Office, worked with prosecutors and chiefs of police so that the appropriate directives were given to officers in the field and at the police academy.
           
Benefits to Victims
The benefit to the victim is that time-sensitive evidence can be collected when it is still viable and can be preserved in a manner that will allow its use at some future date, should criminal prosecution be pursued. The importance of this option was impressed on the protocol committee in an anonymous case involving a patient who was twice assaulted by someone from a previous relationship. Because she was in a new relationship, she was undecided about reporting the first incident but did have anonymous collection of evidence. The second assault was reported and evidence from both kits was effectively used to plea bargain the case and to send the assailant to prison.

Benefits to Criminal Justice
Anonymous medical forensic evidence provides time-sensitive evidence collection when it is still available on the victim's body. The practice ensures that the evidence is preserved in a manner that will allow its later use if criminal prosecution is pursued, and it enables better corroboration of the crime at trial.

Lessons Learned

  • Learning is a fluid process. It took about 2 years for law enforcement to accept anonymous reporting as a standard practice. Additionally, hospital staff needed to be trained on the process. Frequently, hospitals had offered victims younger than age 18 the option of anonymous evidence collection, which was in violation of the New Hampshire reporting laws.
  • The statute of limitations in sexual assault cases should always be taken into consideration when creating an anonymous collection system. In New Hampshire, the statute of limitations for reporting a sexual assault where a criminal prosecution is still a possibility is 6 years from the time of the assault if the person is 18 years old or older. In actuality, the kits that are collected should be housed until the statute has run out before they are destroyed. The New Hampshire crime lab is not physically able to accommodate this request, so many kits are routinely stored in evidence rooms at law enforcement agencies.

Contact Information
Extensive contact information for victim/witness assistance programs, sexual assault crisis centers, elder services, and more is included in the following publication:

State of New Hampshire, Office of the Attorney General, An Acute Care Protocol for Medical/Forensic Evaluation, Fifth Edition, 2008, Cornish, New Hampshire.