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EVAWI > Resources > Forensic Compliance > FAQs > Law Enforcement
Forensic Compliance Frequently Asked Questions

Note: The information on this website is designed to: (a) communicate the requirements of the Violence Against Women Act (as reauthorized in 2005 and 2013), and (b) offer recommended practices for implementation. The goal is to highlight examples of communities striving to achieve a higher standard of the “spirit of the law,” rather than simply meeting the “letter of the law” for VAWA forensic compliance.  It is critically important that readers consult state laws and regulations, as well as local policies and protocols, because they may have additional requirements beyond those included in VAWA 2005 and VAWA 2013. For more information specific to your state or territory, contact the STOP Grant Administrator or coalition of advocacy organizations providing services for sexual assault victims.  A listing is available from the website for the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice.

Q Are law enforcement officers required to stay at the facility until the end of a medical forensic examination? Do officers have to sign a form that is sealed inside the kit? This issue may not arise in many jurisdictions, but it can be a concern if the form that forensic examiners use to document the examination has a space for a law enforcement signature and/or “authorization.”
A Are law enforcement officers required to stay at the facility until the end of a medical forensic examination? Do officers have to sign a form that is sealed inside the kit? This issue may not arise in many jurisdictions, but it can be a concern if the form that forensic examiners use to document the examination has a space for a law enforcement signature and/or “authorization.

The short answer to this question is no. Law enforcement officers should not be required to wait for health care providers to complete the entire examination process. They certainly should not be required to wait and sign a form that is sealed inside the kit. Health care providers have a number of tasks to complete even after the victim leaves the exam facility, including the documentation and packaging of evidence, which do not require law enforcement presence for completion. These tasks require attention to detail, and this could be compromised if forensic examiners feel they have to rush so a waiting officer can sign a form to be sealed inside the kit. Some communities have established protocols that allow examiners to complete the required paperwork and notify the law enforcement agency that it is ready for pick-up, or they may fax the form to law enforcement via a secured fax line or submit it via secure electronic submission.

Law Enforcement Does Not “Authorize” Examination

Some of the misunderstanding in this area stems from the history of law enforcement authorization for medical forensic examinations in some states like California. Many professionals continue to refer to “law enforcement authorization” when talking about a medical forensic examination with a sexual assault victim. However, this changed in the wake of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provisions referred to as forensic compliance, which requires that all victims of sexual assault are provided a medical forensic exam free of charge and regardless of their participation in the criminal justice process. With this legislation in place, the terminology of “authorization” is simply no longer appropriate. The reality is that law enforcement agencies are not in the business of “authorizing” exams anymore – even in states like California where law enforcement pays for forensic examinations. Sexual assault victims can – and do – consent to the examination without law enforcement being involved at the time of the examination.

Law Enforcement Can Facilitate Examination

At the same time, law enforcement is often the first point of contact with sexual victims, so responding officers must be familiar with the medical forensic examination and how to best facilitate these examinations for victims. This should include transportation to and from the examination facility, as well as briefing the forensic examiner before and afterward. The responding officer or investigator must also communicate with the forensic examiner to understand what additional information was learned during the examination and how the information, documentation, and examination findings relate to the preliminary investigation as well as identification of the crime scene(s) and the collection of evidence. To illustrate, the forensic examiner might have learned during the examination process that a condom was used during the assault or that the victim or suspect cleaned themselves with some type of material after the sexual assault. This would be critically important to communicate to the responding officer or investigator.

Paperwork Still Reflects Authorization

While law enforcement no longer authorizes medical forensic examinations, the paperwork and protocols do not always reflect this change. This problem is illustrated with the form used in California by health care providers to document a sexual assault medical forensic exam (CA OES 923). On the first page of the form, there is a section titled, “Reporting and Authorization.” In that section, there is a box for officers to indicate that: “I Request a Forensic Medical Examination for Suspected Sexual Assault at the Public’s Expense.” Then there is a space for officers to fill in their name, ID number, phone number, and case number, as well as the date and time of their signature. It is certainly understandable that law enforcement professionals, forensic examiners, and others would see this as “authorization” required before the examination is conducted.

Even in states that do not have a standardized form for documenting the medial forensic examination, similar issues might arise in terms of a protocol or forensic examination form that is being used locally. Therefore it is worth clarifying that law enforcement authorization is not legally required in California – nor is it in any state, territory, or tribe – as a result of the Violence Against Women Act. Victims can consent to a medical forensic examination to be conducted by health care providers without law enforcement being involved at the time of the examination. Any legal responsibilities the health care provider may have for mandated reporting can be met at a later time by submitting the appropriate form (e.g., Suspicious Injury Form).

Form Not Sealed in Evidentiary Kit

It is also worth highlighting that there is no legal requirement that the forensic examiner’s form be sealed inside the evidentiary kit. There are other alternatives. To provide an example, the Eisenhower Medical Center, which is headquartered in Rancho Mirage, California does not put the form completed by health care providers who conduct a medical forensic exam inside the evidentiary kit. Instead, an electronic version of the form is emailed to the law enforcement agency. A copy is also sent to the Records Department at the medical facility. If the patient is a minor, and a copy is needed for Child Protective Services, this will be forwarded by the law enforcement agency.

There is also a checkbox on the form indicating that a copy is sent to the Crime Laboratory, but this requirement is met when the forensic examiner places instructions inside the evidentiary kit directing crime laboratory personnel to call the Eisenhower Medical Center to obtain a copy of the report. The report will then be faxed or emailed directly to the Crime Laboratory.

According to Diana Faugno, a sexual assault nurse examiner who works for the Eisenhower Medical Center (and also serves on the EVAWI Board of Directors), this process has been used for approximately five years, and it works well because it allows the forensic examiner time to review the documentation and evidence from the examination, including narrative responses and photographs, and to make any corrections needed before the paperwork is completed and sent electronically to law enforcement.

Purpose of the Officer’s Signature

To explore this issue further, it is helpful to explain the purpose of the officer’s signature. When the officer signs such a form, the purpose is not to document verification of the contents of the kit. That is the role of the health care provider conducting the exam. The signature is also not required to document chain of custody – that can and should be handled using a different procedure, not involving the forensic examiner’s form. However, even if the forensic examiner’s form is being used for this purpose of documenting chain of custody, it can simply be attached to the outside of the kit or submitted via a secure fax or electronic transmission.

When the Victim is Unsure About Criminal Justice Participation

The issues discussed so far could pertain generally to medical forensic exams conducted with a sexual assault victim, wherever there are concerns with medical forensic examination forms with a space for an officer’s signature. However, the issue may be particularly critical in situations where the victim has not yet made a decision regarding whether or not to participate in the criminal justice process. When a victim has not yet made the decision to talk with law enforcement, it is especially problematic to require an officer to respond in person to the exam facility, to sign a form – let alone wait until the entire examination process is finished, so the form can be sealed inside the evidentiary kit.

In most jurisdictions, there is no medical mandating requirement for competent adult victims of sexual assault, so law enforcement will not be immediately notified that such an exam has been conducted, unless the patient has requested that they be notified. In cases where the patient is undecided about reporting, the law enforcement agency may be notified by the health care provider when the exam process is complete and the evidentiary kit is ready to be picked up and logged into evidence by law enforcement.

Even in jurisdictions that do have medical mandated reporting for competent adult victims of sexual assault, it is still not necessary to have an officer respond to the facility to sign the forensic examination form. The notification requirement will be spelled out in the law requiring medical mandated reporting, but it typically requires only that the health care provider file a form with the law enforcement agency and/or provide notification by telephone. Notification does not require an officer’s signature, because the reporting requirement is on the health care provider – not the victim or the officer.

Acknowledgements

We would like to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of several people who contributed significantly to this response:

  • Kim Day, RN, FNE, SANE-A, SANE-P, SAFEta Coordinator for the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN). Please contact Kim Day at kimday@iafn.org for information and technical assistance on the medical forensic exam and the National SAFE Protocol.
  • Diana Faugno, MSN, RN, CPN, SANE-A, SANE-P, FAAFS, DF-IAFN, Eisenhower Medical Center
This project is supported by Grant No. 2013-TA-AX-K045 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
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