Rape, alcohol and consent are under review by state sexual assault task force

November 14, 2018

A state task force on sexual assault is discussing changes to Minnesota’s laws on alcohol and consent that could have far-reaching implications for rape victims.

The changes could make it easier for prosecutors to win convictions in sexual assault cases by showing that a victim was too drunk to consent to sex — now considered a significant barrier to prosecuting rapists. Many sexual assaults involve drinking, and officers and prosecutors consider them the toughest cases.

Such revisions, currently at the brainstorming stage, will likely be among a set of final recommendations sent to the 2019 Legislature by the task force. The work group was created by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson after the Star Tribune began publishing Denied Justice, an investigative series that documented widespread failures in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults in Minnesota.

The goal is a final report for the Legislature when it convenes Jan. 8 and newly elected Attorney General Keith Ellison takes office. The task force will then adjourn.

The group, chaired by former Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, met for the fifth time Tuesday at the capitol. Members questioned whether Minnesota’s laws on intoxication and sexual assault are too strict — making cases difficult to prosecute by making it hard for victims to prove they were too intoxicated to grant consent.

“That is a significant part of what we see in these cases,” said Paul Young, a task force member and criminal division chief at the Anoka County Attorney’s Office. “The discussion has to happen.”

“Now is the time to have that debate,” he told the group.

Under current Minnesota law, suspects can claim that sex was consensual unless the victim was “physically helpless” and the perpetrator knew it. The laws in a handful of other states, including Wisconsin, make that defense harder by outlawing intercourse with a person who is too intoxicated to consent.

In a parallel effort, the state’s top police regulator, the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, is also drafting new guidelines in response to the Star Tribune series.

Work groups there are addressing sexual assault training for officers and the creation of statewide standards for criminal investigations of sexual assault.

Suzanne Elwell, director of the Crime Victim Justice Unit inside the state Department of Public Safety, also addressed the task force on Tuesday, describing the role her office plays in handling complaints from crime victims.

Elwell said that about half of the roughly 1,600 complaints fielded by her office each year concern the conduct of law enforcement agencies, with 25 percent about prosecutors.

Swanson’s task force will meet again in two weeks.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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