A year ago, the Acting Attorney General of New Jersey issued new guidelines that mandate retaining forensic evidence of sexual assault for at least five years. This was done to give victims in New Jersey more control over their lives.
Sexual assault victims can choose to have a specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, often called the SANE Nurse, examine them in hospital settings to provide medical treatment and to gather forensic evidence of the assault without reporting the assault to law enforcement. Forensic evidence includes specimens of bodily fluids, hair, clothing and photographs of visible injuries, as well as medical reports describing other injuries observed or detected by the SANE Nurse and attending physicians.
The first priority of the sexual assault response team in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties is assuring the victim’s safety and meeting the victim’s medical and emotional needs. The SANE Nurse is a key player in these victim centered response teams, which also include advocates who help victims understand and choose among the options available to them.
Should a victim choose to consent to an exam, she/he has the option of having the evidence and documentation disclosed to law enforcement immediately or, if not ready to decide about pursuing a criminal case against the assailant, to have the evidence and documentation retained in a secure repository that maintains the chain of custody needed to preserve the material for admission as evidence in a court case. Most important, the material is indexed and stored in a way that fully protects the victim’s privacy and confidentiality.
“Aggravated sexual assault”, which other states and the federal law call “rape”, is a first degree offense in New Jersey, like murder or kidnapping. There is no “statute of limitations” for prosecuting this crime. As a practical matter, forensic evidence may be essential to convicting the defendant of sexual assault. Under the New Jersey guidelines the forensic evidence gathered by the SANE Nurse must be retained for five years from the date of the examination. If the victim was minor at the time of the examination, the evidence must be retained for five years from the victim’s eighteenth birthday.
Victims of sexual assault can also seek redress for their injuries by filing civil suits against their attackers. In New Jersey, civil law suits must be filed within two years of the incident, although there are reasons courts can allow cases to be filed later. For example, if the victim is less than 18 years old at the time of the sexual assault or unlawful sexual contact, she/he has two years after reaching the age of 18 to file suit. In all cases the victim’s civil cause of action “…accrue[s] at the time of reasonable discovery of the injury and its causal relationship to the act of sexual abuse.” A victim’s civil law suit must be started within two years after reasonable discovery.
The journey from “victim” to “survivor” begins with the first step.