Eye on KELOLAND: MN rape ruling sparks movement to change state law on consuming alcohol

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A Minnesota Supreme Court ruling has gained national attention and sparked protests outside the state capitol, urging lawmakers to make a change.

The court overturned a sex crime conviction because the victim was voluntarily intoxicated, a ‘loophole’ in the definition of mentally incapacitated under the current Minnesota state law.
Women’s rights groups and sexual assault advocates say this highly publicized case is making waves all over the country.

“There are so many barriers for victims to report and talk about what’s happened to them, this is just another barrier,” The Compass Center Executive Director Michelle Trent said.

It’s already difficult to get victims of sexual assault to come forward, a fact The Compass Center director Michelle Trent knows all too well from her years of counseling victims of rape and sexual assault.

“There’s a lot of messages that victims get from various places or people along the way that say, this is your fault. Or that if you wouldn’t have done this thing, x, y or z, whether that’s consuming alcohol, or worn this inappropriate thing or walked alone at night, or fill in the blank with anything else that we tend to use for victim blaming,” Trent said.

Trent says the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling further discourages sexual assault victims to reach out to police.

“It tells victims that they aren’t important, that reporting sexual violence isn’t going to get them anywhere, it sends a message to victims, you might as well not talk about it to anyone, you might as well not seek justice because you’re probably not going to get it,” Trent said.

Under the current law in Minnesota, the Supreme Court justices say there is a big legal limitation on what constitutes a sex crime in the state.

“If you voluntarily become intoxicated and you knowingly choose to consume that alcohol and you become intoxicated, you really don’t know what you’re doing, you really don’t know what you’re saying yes or no to, if you voluntarily brought yourself to that point, an individual can have sexual intercourse with you and it is not a crime, in Minnesota,” Matchen said.

Sioux Falls attorney Hope Matchen says that’s not the case in South Dakota where she spent many years as Minnehaha County’s Chief Deputy States Attorney specializing in sexual assault cases.

“In fact I had a case… Where she became intoxicated by her own choice, by her own decision, and he was charged with rape,” Matchen said. “It was a very serious case, it was taken very seriously by the family and he was found guilty, so in South Dakota we don’t have that issue.”

She says there is no question the Minnesota Supreme Court correctly interpreted their state law.

“The problem was clear as the nose on my face. It was right there in the plain language,” Matchen said. “It can be remedied.”

But it’s not a problem the courts can address.

“No means no. Drunk is not consent. Being forced or coerced is not consent,” Madisyn Priestley, a Minnesota sexual assault survivor said.  “We need to make sure that these legislators take us seriously because if they’re not going to defend us, we have nothing to protect us.” 

The solution can only come from state lawmakers, and they’re facing mounting pressure to take action. Preistley was one of the Minnesota women who organized a protest at the Minnesota capitol where hundreds showed their support and shared their stories. 

“We are working to change this law,” Lindsey Port, a DFL Minnesota State Senator said. 

A bipartisan Minnesota house bill would expand the definition of mentally incapacitated to anyone who is too intoxicated to give consent. The bill was approved by the public safety and judiciary committees in the democratic state house Wednesday. 

“Being intoxicated when you are assaulted, doesn’t make it any less difficult, doesn’t make your healing any less real, it doesn’t mean the assault is any less real, it’s a very real thing that happens that perpetrators use all the time,” Trent said.

Trent says alcohol is a common factor in sexual assaults that can make the healing process even more difficult for victims.

“This is something that happens every day in our community,” Trent said. “So the community has the chance to step up and say, this isn’t ok here. It’s not something that we want to have happen here, and what can we do to stop that?”

An action many advocates are now taking, spurred on by the Minnesota supreme court ruling.

“When you have justices calling out legal loopholes, it creates another level of, this is something that should change. So the realities of–this is what it looks like if you’d change it, were appalling to the community at large, which is part of the national attention on it,” Trent said.

Luverne, Minnesota State Senator Bill Weber says many lawmakers on both sides of the isle are passionate about changing the law this year. He says he supports a change but determining the exact legal language of the bill will be a challenge.

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