DULUTH — The Minnesota Supreme Court ruling seemed outrageous enough. That it came during Women’s History Month and just days ahead of Sexual Assault Awareness Month made it all the more difficult to accept.
But don’t blame the Supreme Court. It interpreted a state statute as written, as the court is bound to do.
Do call on the Minnesota Legislature, however, to finally fix the state’s sexual-assault statute, which it has been working on doing since 2019.
“We need to get this fix done now,” as Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen, said in a statement last week.
Yes, please, this session.
So this can’t happen again: On March 24, the state Supreme Court overturned a Maple Grove, Minn., man’s felony conviction for sexual assault — because the victim got herself drunk. Under state statute, the felony charge can only apply when a victim has drugs or alcohol “administered … without the person’s agreement.”
In this case, a 20-year-old male picked up an intoxicated woman outside a Dinkytown bar in Minneapolis. She had, on her own, taken one pill of a prescription drug and five shots of vodka. The man was accused of later raping her after she was passed out on a couch inside a home in North Minneapolis.
A bill to fix this gap in justice is advancing through the Minnesota House. It would add language to the state’s third-degree statute, making it a felony to have sex with someone too intoxicated to consent — no matter how they got that way, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
The current law, as written, was meant to apply in situations where a victim is “given alcohol surreptitiously (for example, when someone ‘spikes’ a punch bowl at a party),” Justice Paul Thissen wrote. In the March 24 ruling, he also acknowledged that attorneys for both sides agree a crime was committed, but a less-serious one: fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, a gross misdemeanor, which carries lighter penalties, as opposed to a felony.
Thissen further acknowledged that a “commonsense understanding” of mentally incapacitated could include someone who drank voluntarily yet “cannot exercise judgment sufficiently to express consent” to sex. But that’s not how the statute is currently written.
“Sexual-assault survivors have already gone through enough trauma. Seeing their perpetrators escape justice is unacceptable,” said Sen. Coleman. “Our statutes shouldn’t allow for victim-blaming, and I am committed to doing whatever is necessary to create a culture where all victims of sexual violence get justice.”
The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, said in a statement: “Victims who are intoxicated to the degree that they are unable to give consent are entitled to justice. Our laws must clearly reflect that understanding, and today’s Supreme Court ruling highlights the urgency lawmakers have to close this and other loopholes throughout our (criminal sexual conduct) law.”
That urgency is amplified by April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Minnesota’s sexual-assault statute falls short, is failing victims, and demands to be fixed now, this legislative session — no matter what month it is.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.