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Minnesota Supreme Court decision exposes flaws in sexual assault laws across US

Law centers around voluntary consumption of substances
MN Sex Assault
Posted at 3:21 PM, Apr 15, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS — A recent court ruling in Minnesota exposed a potential flaw in sexual assault laws in most of the United States. Lawmakers and advocates in that state are jumping at the chance to make changes and protect future generations from trauma.

“For victims of sexual assault, that one night, that one experience can dramatically change their lives,” said Assistant Hennipen County Attorney James Hanneman.

On the steps of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Hanneman was just echoing what he’s heard from too many victims, that the scars of sexual violence never fade easy. It’s a sentiment that too many people in this country, especially women, know too well.

“You hear from victims how they become a totally different person after being victimized. Their personality changes, they don’t go out anymore, they don’t trust people and they live with the consequences of someone else’s act for the rest of their lives,” said Hanneman.

Hennipen County recently lost a case in this building on this very topic. According to court documents, a 24-year-old man and his friends picked up a woman who was too drunk to get into a bar and invited her and a friend to a party at an apartment.

The woman told police she had taken several shots of alcohol and a pain pill. When she got to the apartment, there was no party and she passed out. She woke up several hours later and says she was being raped by the 24-year-old.

The man was convicted, but his appeal made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“Many of us who do this work saw then that it may be problematic if it was reviewed by the Supreme Court because the statute doesn’t apply when the victim drinks alcohol voluntarily,” said Kaarin Long.

That's the key word: "voluntarily."

Long, a former prosecutor in the state, says she saw her fears play out in court.

The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant, overturned the conviction, and granted him a new trial. The logic, according to the court, was that the definition of “mentally incapacitated” did not apply because the victim consumed the alcohol and pain pill voluntarily.

“The issue of voluntary intoxication has been a conversation in the advocacy for years,” said Lindsay Brice, the policy director for Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a victims advocacy organization.

Lindsay and Kaarin are both part of a group that's been trying to overhaul the sexual violence laws in the state for years. They call the issue of voluntary intoxication a loophole in terms of mental incapacitation.

One piece of research found that it's a problem in 40 states across the country.

State representative Kelly Moller decided she wants to help close the loophole in Minnesota.

“We continued to hear those stories, especially in cases where victims are intoxicated but voluntarily intoxicated, that we had a big loophole in our law that only protected victims when they were given drugs or alcohol,” said Moller.

Rep. Moller introduced a bill in the Minnesota state legislature to close the loophole for good. Right now, the bill is making its way through the legislative process in the Capitol.

The four people we talked to for this story share a common thread, wanting to stand up for victims of sexual violence and hold those responsible accountable.

“When we change our criminal laws, they can only apply to cases going forward and so none of those victims will get justice in their cases. These survivors come to us knowing that, but wanting to make change for the person behind them," said Moller.

“This is what I do, these are the cases that I prosecute, and I have to have way too many conversations with victims telling them the law doesn’t protect them from what happened,” said Hanneman.

“I never blame anyone for not coming forward, I fully get it. But then we, that’s another guy that knows that he can do this with impunity, and we just, we have to stop it. We can’t let that happen,” said Long.