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EVAWI > Resources > Best Practices > FAQs > Evidence
Q What should a victim do if their cell phone is taken for evidence?
Q Is it possible to mail forensic evidence to a crime laboratory?
Q Can evidence be returned to victims?
A What should a victim do if their cell phone is taken for evidence?

In some cases, victims are asked to submit their cell phone for evidence. This can have several unintended consequences for the victim, such as loss of access to their support system and increased challenges for criminal justice professionals to maintain communication with the victim, as well as difficulty fulfilling work obligations, particularly because many people work remotely. Perhaps the most significant challenge for victims, however, may be financial hardship, due to the often exorbitant cost of a new phone and the charge for breaking a contract with a cell phone company.

For victims who are under a contract, they - or the advocates they are working with - can approach a manager in a local branch of the cell phone company and discuss the possibility of switching the victim’s service and contract to a new device. Cell phone companies are often helpful in allowing victims of domestic violence to get out of contracts when the phone is connected to an abuser. It is hoped that the same would be true for victims of sexual assault.

For more information on the intersection of technology and violence against women, please visit the Safety Net Project on the website for the National Network to end Domestic Violence

Thanks to Cindy Southworth, Founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), for the information contained in this response.

A Is it possible to mail forensic evidence to a crime laboratory?

Two states, Texas and Virginia, have developed materials to provide instructions for mailing evidence to the state crime laboratory when a forensic examination is conducted without a report to law enforcement. They may be helpful for other jurisdictions implementing a similar procedure for transferring evidence. The instructions developed for the state of Virginia even include detailed pictures to illustrate the process, as well as a consent form for sexual assault victims to sign documenting their understanding of the process. While many community professionals are not aware of it, these procedures for mailing evidence are a standard practice for many law enforcement agencies; what is new in this context is the fact that the evidence is being mailed by forensic examiners rather than law enforcement investigators.

A Can evidence be returned to victims?

Community protocols need to clarify what rights (if any) victims have for returning clothing or other evidence associated with various forms of reports (e.g., clothing, bedding). This information can then be incorporated into the informational materials created for victims. In communities where evidence is stored anonymously by law enforcement, it may be difficult for victims to have anything returned to them, because some form of identification is typically required before evidence can be returned to its lawful owner. However, if the victim has met with law enforcement at some point during the alternative reporting procedure, it is possible that the officer can make the necessary arrangements to have certain items returned to the victim if requested. This would likely require the victim to show proper identification, with the understanding that the victim’s identity will not be recorded as part of the report.

When evidence in connection with such a report is stored by a SAFE program or other health care facility, it may be easier to return some items to the victim if requested. However, this will likely pertain only to items such as clothing or bedding. Serious concerns would arise if victims were offered the option of requesting other types of evidence (e.g., biological samples collected during a medical forensic examination). Among other concerns, this might create an opportunity for suspects to intimidate victims into requesting to have evidence returned, to obstruct the investigation and potential prosecution. We therefore recommend that informational materials clarify that any biological evidence collected does not belong to the victim and that no process exists for victims to request access to this evidence or have it returned to them.
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