August 11, 2022

T-Break

Let'S Talk Law

Minnesota needs stronger sexual assault laws

A recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision in a sexual assault case highlighted a legal loophole that must be fixed. In a decision last month, the court ruled a person who is sexually assaulted while intoxicated isn’t considered “mentally incapacitated” if he or she consumed alcohol or drugs voluntarily.

Under the court’s interpretation, instead of facing a felony charge, a person who sexually assaults a voluntarily intoxicated person would likely be charged with a gross misdemeanor. That means even with a conviction the person would not be put on the state’s Predatory Offender Registry.

The 6-0 decision prompted about 100 people to demonstrate at the State Capitol earlier this week, and rightly so. They urged lawmakers to strengthen sexual assault laws to make it clear that being severely intoxicated — no matter how that happens — can make one incapable of consenting to sexual activity.

To make that much-needed change, earlier this year state Reps. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, and Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, introduced a bill (HF 707) that would modify the definition of “mentally incapacitated” in Minnesota’s sexual assault laws. The current definition creates barriers to prosecuting cases in which plaintiffs were drunk before encountering the accused.

The proposal was among the recommendations from a state working group on strengthening Minnesota sexual assault laws. The effort was prompted by the Star Tribune’s Denied Justice series, which documented the difficulties in getting prosecutions in cases if victims were drinking.

Also included in the bill is a new crime of sexual extortion, in which someone is blackmailed or threatened into unwanted sexual contact.

The proposal moved through two committees in the DFL-led House but has not yet been heard in the Senate. However, Sens. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen, have indicated their support.

Justice Paul Thissen, who wrote the Supreme Court decision, indicated that the current law should be changed. “This case arises from an experience no person should ever have to endure,” Thissen wrote. The opinion added that court justices “are mindful of and concerned” about the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the United States.

Citing a brief from the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Thissen wrote, “nearly half of all women in the United States have been the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime — including an estimated 10 million women who have been raped while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” The opinion cited the Legislature’s “unique institutional capacity” to address the law.

The court’s decision granted Francois Momolu Khalil a new trial. In 2017, Khalil raped a woman who had passed out in his Minneapolis home. Khalil had picked up the woman after she had been refused entry to a Dinkytown bar because she was too intoxicated. A jury found Khalil guilty of third-degree criminal sexual misconduct, determining the victim was mentally incapacitated from alcohol and a prescription narcotic.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court decision “unreasonably strains and stretches the plain text of the statute” because the victim took intoxicants before encountering her attacker. The law “means that a person under the influence of alcohol is not mentally incapacitated unless the alcohol was administered to the person under its influence without that person’s agreement,” Thissen wrote.

The decision is an accurate interpretation of the existing law. It also comes in a case that should prompt the Legislature to move quickly to change that law and make it easier for sexual assault victims to get justice.

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