Minnesota Supreme Court rules on mental capacity of ‘voluntarily intoxicated’ sexual assault victims

The outcome emphasises the need for state legislation that better protects victims, an attorney says

Minnesota Supreme Court rules on mental capacity of ‘voluntarily intoxicated’ sexual assault victims

The Minnesota Supreme Court has released a significant decision regarding “voluntarily intoxicated” sexual assault victims, unanimously judging that such individuals are not “mentally incapacitated.”

The court made the decision in relation to a case involving a 2017 incident where a woman was raped while under the influence of alcohol and a prescription narcotic. Following a police investigation, the perpetrator, Francios Momolu Khalil, was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant by a jury of the district court – a felony crime. This ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

Khalil contested the interpretation of mental incapacity, reasoning that the victim had not been given intoxicants without her consent in line with the definition of the third-degree sexual misconduct statute since she had consumed the alcohol and the narcotic voluntarily prior to her encounter with him.

The Minnesota Supreme Court referred back to the legislation that defined mental incapacity as applicable only to “a person under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anaesthetic, or any other substance, administered to that person without the person’s agreement,” who therefore “lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.”

“A text is unclear or ambiguous only when it is susceptible to multiple reasonable interpretations,” Justice Paul Thissen wrote in an opinion released last Wednesday. “We hold that the definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’…is susceptible to only one reasonable interpretation; namely, that alcohol causing a person to lack judgment to give a reasoned consent must be administered to the person without the person’s agreement.”

The offence in question, the court decided, amounted to fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct – a gross misdemeanour rather than a felony given that the victim was “voluntarily intoxicated.” The ruling grants Khalil a new district court trial, and prevents him from being listed on the Minnesota Predatory Offender Registry.

In its coverage of the ruling, the Minneapolis Star Tribune said that the judgment could have “far-reaching consequences” for victims of sexual assault.   

“Judge Thissen's decision just clarifies that our law needs to be fixed through the legislature, not through courts,” said Lauren Rimestad, who is the spokeswoman for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, in a statement published by the Tribune. “This has been a problem specific to Minnesota for a long time.”

Rimestad pointed out that there is legislation forbidding sexual contact with individuals who are unable to consent as a result of intoxication in “more than a half-dozen states.” However, Minnesota’s statute hampers the successful prosecution of such incidents, she said. 

Christina Warren, a senior attorney for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office Sexual Assault Initiative, said that the Supreme Court’s ruling emphasises the need for state legislation that better protects victims.

“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,” DFL-Shoreview Representative Kelly Moller said in a statement published by the Tribune.

The Tribune reported that Moller had introduced a bill to amend the third-degree sexual misconduct statute to include those who were too intoxicated to consent to sexual encounters earlier this year.

“This ruling underscores the need to change our criminal sexual conduct laws to reflect the reality that all victims unable to consent need justice, not just those who have been forcibly intoxicated,” said R-Maple Lake Representative Marion O'Neill, who co-authored the bill, in a statement published by the Tribune.

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