Sidebar to the article Sexual Assault Cases: Exploring the Importance of Non-DNA Forensic Evidence by Heather Waltke, Gerald LaPorte, Danielle Weiss, Dawn Schwarting, Minh Nguyen, and Frances Scott.
Drug-facilitated sexual assaults (DFSA) are increasing nationwide, especially among college-age women. Alcohol and drugs are common contributors to sexual assault, especially assaults committed by acquaintances, because they can cause diminished capacity and make a person vulnerable to their surroundings. Depending on the drug, effects can be felt as quickly as 20 minutes after ingestion and can cause amnesia for up to 8 hours. Whether a “date-rape” drug such as alprazolam (Xanax) or gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) is unknowingly ingested or a mainstream party drug such as alcohol, methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (Ecstasy), or marijuana is used voluntarily, the identification of these substances through toxicological testing may offer a jury compelling evidence indicating a victim’s inability to have consented to the advances of an alleged assailant.
Ensuring that toxicological testing is completed in a timely manner is paramount due to the rapid metabolic process and excretion rates of many drugs. NIJ is currently supporting research to explore new ways of extending the testing window to allow drugs to be detected days or even weeks after ingestion. This novel research is looking at complexes formed between proteins in the blood and the drug, which remain in the blood for weeks after ingestion. This could offer evidence of a victim’s incapacitation in cases where reporting of the assault is delayed.
Toxicological testing is complicated by the emergence over the past decade of “designer” drugs, which may not be detectable using a lab’s usual methods. NIJ-supported research has also confirmed that many of these drugs break down very rapidly in blood or urine, even in samples that have already been collected and refrigerated or frozen, as they would be in a suspected DFSA case. Drugs also are broken down into metabolites by the body, and little is known about the metabolites of these new drugs. Often, these metabolites are present at higher levels than the original drug, so it is critical to be able to identify them if present in the body of a DFSA victim. NIJ is committed to supporting research to identify these metabolites, determine which new drugs are being abused, and develop new methods for identifying these emerging drugs.
About This Article
This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 279, published April 2018, as a sidebar to the article Sexual Assault Cases: Exploring the Importance of Non-DNA Forensic Evidence by Heather Waltke, Gerald LaPorte, Danielle Weiss, Dawn Schwarting, Minh Nguyen, and Frances Scott.
[note 1] Steven Lawyer et al., “Forcible, Drug-Facilitated, and Incapacitated Rape and Sexual Assault Among Undergraduate Women,” Journal of American College Health 58 no. 5 (October 2010): 453-460. Recent news reports describe incidents on college campuses such as the University of Missouri (UM) and Northwestern University where fraternities were using date-rape drugs at parties and for initiations. At UM, the Delta Upsilon fraternity initiation process allegedly required new members to drug women in order to incapacitate them and engage in sexual activity. The fraternity is even alleged to have supplied the drugs. These examples are not unique; a 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania notes that 6 percent of the students were sexually assaulted while they were incapacitated. Claire Landsbaum, "University of Missouri Fraternity Allegedly Forced New Members to Give Women Date-Rape Drugs," The Cut, October 14, 2016; Joe Sterling, ”Sex Assault, Date-Rape Drug Allegations Rattle Northwestern," CNN Wire, February 7, 2017; and David Cantor et al., Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (New York: Association of American Universities, 2015).
[note 3] A Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Program through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security supplies a toxicology kit to test for the presence of substances as part of their SAK; however, toxicology testing in Massachusetts is conducted only within 96 hours of the assault. Theodore P. Cross et al., “Forensic Evidence and Criminal Justice Outcomes in a Statewide Sample of Sexual Assault Cases,” Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 2011-WG-BX-0005, September 2014, NCJ 248254.
[note 4] Some drugs are no longer in the blood after 4-6 hours; others can remain in the urine up to 48 hours because of the way the body metabolizes the substance. “Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault,” West Virginia Foundation for Rape Improvement Services.
[note 5] Richard A. Gilliland, Carolina Moller, and Anthony P. DeCaprio, “Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS)-Based Analysis of In Vitro Covalent Modifications of Glutathione (GSH) and Peptide Thiols by Drugs of Abuse,” proceedings of the 69th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, New Orleans, LA, February 2017.
[note 6] Anthony P. DeCaprio, W. Lee Hearn, and Madeleine J. Swortwood, “Comprehensive Forensic Toxicological Analysis of Designer Drugs,” Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 2011-DN-BX-K559, December 2013, NCJ 244233.
[note 7] Lindsay Glicksberg, Kelsie Bryand, and Sarah Kerrigan. “Identification and Quantification of Synthetic Cathinones in Blood and Urine Using Liquid Chromatography-Quadrupole/Time of Flight (LC-Q/TOF) Mass Spectrometry,” Journal of ChromatographyB 1035 (2016): 91-103; and Megan Grabenauer, Katherine N. Moore, and Brian .F. Thomas, “Characterization of Designer Drugs: Chemical Stability, Exposure, and Metabolite Identification,” Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 2012-R2-CX-K001, April 2016, NCJ 249855.
[note 8] Amanda L.A. Mohr, Melissa Friscia, and Barry K. Logan, “Identification and Prevalence Determination of Novel Recreational Drugs and Discovery of Their Metabolites in Blood, Urine and Oral Fluid,” Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 2013-DN-BX-K018, October 2016, NCJ 250338; Alex J. Krotulski, Amanda L.A. Mohr, Melissa Friscia, and Barry K. Logan, “Application of SWATH® Acquisition for Broad-Based Forensic Toxicology Drug Screening of Oral Fluid Using Liquid Chromatography Quadrupole Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (LC-QTOF),” poster presentation to the Society of Forensic Toxicologists, October 2016; and Sarah Kerrigan, “Designer Amphetamines in Forensic Toxicology Casework,” Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 2008-DN-BX-K126, March 2013, NCJ 241439.