Minnesota lawmakers poised to make major overhaul to sexual assault laws

Lawmakers on the powerful Senate Judiciary committee agreed to make sweeping changes to Minnesota's sexual assault laws Thursday, putting them on a track toward passage later this spring.

The legislation creates a new crime of sexual extortion, by which a perpetrator threatens a victim to force the person to have sex. It includes several new protections for children.

It also closes a loophole that allows sexual perpetrators to claim their victims were voluntarily drunk as a defense. A recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling on the issue sparked calls for change, and lawmakers said heart-wrenching testimony added to the urgency.

Anne Toohey of Excelsior told lawmakers she had been traumatized twice: once by her rapist in 2019 after a girls' night at a friends' home, and later by prosecutors who told her there was no case because she had been drunk. Minnesota's mental incapacitation law requires a victim to be drugged.

"I’m terrified other sexual assault survivors will have to live through what myself and my family has been through if the law stays the way it’s written," said Toohey, who is married with two kids.

The law came into focus last month when the state Supreme Court reversed a man's rape conviction and ordered a new trial on the basis that his victim had been voluntarily intoxicated.

A bipartisan group in the House had already been pushing for a broad overhaul of Minnesota's sexual assault laws, but it had not moved forward in the Senate.

Uncertainty over what would happen lingered into Thursday, when Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer accepted sweeping changes proposed by Democrats into his committee's omnibus bill.

"Now that the Supreme Court has made its decision, it is our turn to act," said Limmer, R-Maple Grove, at the opening of a marathon hearing the previous night.

Senators adopted the proposal on a unanimous voice vote.

"I think there’s an expectation among the whole range of community that’s paying attention to this that the Legislature will now step up to the plate and do our part to advance this into law," said state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who offered an amendment with the changes.

State Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, who is among the bipartisan coalition in the House, said she was elated by the Senate's move and said "I don't see how this doesn't happen" now.

The proposal makes it illegal to threaten a person into having sex. Among the prohibited acts: threatening a person's employment or immigration status, to post sexual images of the victim, or to withhold housing.

It also says a person can be charged with statutory rape for having sex with any child age 13 or younger, instead of 12 or younger in current law. And it restricts the "mistake of age" defense to five years from the current 10 years' difference between the perpetrator and the victim.