Ensuring all Minnesotans can count on being safe is one of the hallmark responsibilities of the Legislature. Through the course of our work, we often identify shortcomings in current law and other problems which require our action to protect people.
Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court put such a situation right on our doorstep. The court had reviewed a criminal sexual conduct conviction in which a man sexually assaulted a woman after picking her up after she had been refused service by a University of Minnesota-area bar. The victim was clearly intoxicated and unable to provide consent. Unfortunately, in ordering a new trial, the high court ruled that the law’s mental incapacitation clause doesn’t cover an instance in which the victim voluntarily consumed alcohol.
This was a devastating ruling that perpetuates the culture of victim blaming. Prosecutors already face a host of difficulties in successfully charging these cases. Too often, survivors don’t even come forward to report the crime. They might fear they won’t be taken seriously, and there are too many documented cases of exactly that occurring. They might not want to relive their trauma by recounting what happened in excruciating detail.
If there’s any silver lining to this story, it’s that the wheels had already been in motion to address this shortcoming in the law and close other loopholes serving as roadblocks to delivering justice. Last year, a working group thoroughly reviewed the current sexual assault statutes and offered a series of recommendations, including one to address the “voluntary intoxication” loophole. I’m proud to be chief author of a bill containing this overdue, comprehensive series of updates to the criminal sexual conduct code. In fact, in explaining their role and duty to review the plain language of law, regardless of how reprehensible the action under consideration, the Supreme Court specifically noted the working group’s efforts and my legislation.
Not just here in Minnesota, but across the nation, the outrage in response to the court’s ruling was intense. After the Supreme Court’s decision, legislators from both sides of the aisle reached out to sign on as co-authors to this legislation and asked how they can help. Members of the public started an online petition, collecting over 67,000 signatures, and the University of Minnesota Student Association supported a resolution to adopt our bill, collecting nearly 1,200 signatures in a short period of time. Many survivors reached out to me and other legislators to share their support for the bill.
For decades, survivor advocates have worked to not just strengthen sexual assault laws, but to change the entire culture around the concept of consent. In 2021, it should be crystal clear that if someone is intoxicated to the degree they can’t provide consent, justice should be delivered.
My legislation contains other important solutions to combat sexual assault, too. It creates a specific new crime to stop sexual extortion, in which a person is compelled into unwanted sexual conduct, perhaps a renter or employee. It has some significant measures to protect children from sex crimes, and it creates a new, felony-level offense for nonconsensual conduct.
As disappointing as the recent Supreme Court ruling was, I’m encouraged by the momentum developing among members of the public – as well as the bipartisan support from my fellow lawmakers – to make these comprehensive updates to state law. All Minnesotans deserve safety, and if they experience wrongdoing, they should be able to count on justice and accountability being delivered.