The recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that victims of sexual assault aren’t considered mentally incapacitated if they’ve voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs has the Minnesota Legislature working to change the law.
The court found that the definition mentally incapacitated doesn’t fit the designation for a more serious charge, a ruling that didn’t surprise victims advocates who’ve long pressed for change. They say the decision comes as the underlying causes of sexual assault, the challenges victims face coming forward and other factors still complicate attempts to create a more just society.
“It just speaks to the need to change the law,” said HOPE Center Executive Director Erica Staab-Absher. Also, she noted there needs to be a legally ensured way victims can safely come forward and report sexual assaults.
“I do understand their ruling,” she said. “I, of course, don’t agree with it.”
The opinion stems from the case of Francois Momulu Khalil, a Minneapolis man who was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct because the victim was drunk and considered by the jury to be mentally incapacitated. The woman met Khalil after she was refused entry to a bar because she was too intoxicated.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Paul Thissen, the court said the lower court’s definition of mentally incapacitated in this case “unreasonably strains and stretches the plain text of the statute” because the victim was drunk before she met her attacker. To meet the definition, the alcohol must be administered to the person under its influence without that person’s agreement, the high court ruled.
Some legislators are worried about the ruling’s ramifications. District 42A Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, said the decision shows the urgent need for the Minnesota Legislature to update the state’s criminal sexual conduct statute, including closing what she calls the intoxication loophole. She has introduced a bill to amend the statute and create a new crime seeking to prevent sexual extortion.
Staab-Absher said drugs and alcohol plays a factor in many sexual assault cases, particularly those involving college-age perpetrators and victims. Controlled substances are often used by the perpetrator, sometimes as a tool to victimize someone or to take advantage of an already intoxicated victim.
Owatonna-based Crisis Resource Center Executive Director Sara Colby called the Supreme Court decision “absolutely ridiculous,” adding that intoxication is never an excuse for sexual assault. She predicted the decision would only make it tougher for victims to come forward.
“It’s a very intimidating process,” Colby said of coming forward with a sexual assault report.
Last year, Crisis Resource Center of Steele County worked with approximately 150 victims, a number Colby said is typical in 12 months. She noted the prevalence of sexual assault in Owatonna is lower than Mankato and the Twin Cities which are home to college and university campuses.
State group calls on Legislature to modernize statutes
The Minnesota Coalition against Sexual Assault & Rape said the ruling “shows how problematic current law is, pushing victims/survivors further from the justice they seek.”
In 2019, MNCASA requested the Legislature convene a multidisciplinary work group to examine the statutory framework for criminal sexual conduct cases after concerns were expressed about perceived holes in the current system. The group spent 18 months analyzing and discussing the statutes, resulting in a January report to the Legislature recommending ways to improve state statutes for survivors: Modifying the definitions of coercion and significant relationship, addressing cases involving complainants/victims who are voluntarily intoxicated and other adjustments.
Rice County Attorney John Fossum and Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh said the ruling should have little impact in their counites and that they’re not aware of any local cases that the decision impacts and only expect the ruling to cover “a relatively narrow band of future cases.”
“It’s not something that I had my eye on,” Fossum noted.
McIntosh said the ruling only applied to the “mentally incapacitated” definition and didn’t address victims who are deemed “physically helpless.”
“The decision makes sense,” he said.
‘We need to have better conversations about consent’
To Staab-Absher, society has not created a welcoming enough space for women to share their experiences of being sexually assaulted, a problem causing many victims to not come forward and allowing perpetrators to continue getting away with such crimes.
Sexual assault mot often occurs by people who know the victim, further adding to the confusion those assaulted face following the crime. Staab-Absher said victims are left further diminished when those around them say that the perpetrator doesn’t seem like the type of person who would rape someone or question them on why they didn’t come forward sooner. Instead, Staab-Absher said it is important to understand that perpetrators can have any occupation and make good impressions on other people. Colby noted no sexual assault victim nor perpetrator is the same.
“I am so sorry this happened,” Staab-Absher said of what is the proper way of addressing victims when they come forward. “How can I help?”
“All victims should be heard,” Colby noted.
Another important conversation that Staab-Absher said needs to take place is outlining what a healthy relationship entails. Statistics show 80% to 90% of domestic-related sexual assaults occur as other patterns of violence take place.
“We need to have better conversations about consent,” Staab-Absher said. She notices domestic violence victims frequently believe they cannot object to having sex based on the troublesome dynamics of their relationships.
“That’s not consent,” Staab-Absher said. “Within a healthy relationship, there is excitement about engaging in a relationship.”
Though domestic violence is a complicated issue, Staab-Absher and Colby said more preventative funding and education could help ease the toll those crimes have on society. That includes more money to discuss consent, healthy sexuality and masculinity, ensuring that victims are aware of supportive resources. Even if that takes place, however, Staab-Absher said there is likely a group of perpetrators who won’t change their behavior.
At HOPE Center and Crisis Resource Center, services are confidential. Staab-Absher said the organization is open for victims impacted by the recent ruling.