Minnesota's sexual assault laws are getting a broad revamp, as legislators Wednesday morning approved a massive set of changes aimed at plugging longstanding gaps in reporting and prosecuting such cases.
Tucked inside this year's public safety spending measures are laws to widen the definition of "mentally incapacitated" to include voluntary intoxication, cancel the statute of limitations on charging sex crimes, and criminalize extorting victims into sex.
The changes stem from a series of recommendations made this year by a statutory reform working group created after the Star Tribune's 2018 "Denied Justice" investigative series on deficiencies in Minnesota's sex assault laws.
The changes, if signed by Gov. Tim Walz, will take effect Sept. 15.
"Frankly, just the fact that this bill had so much bipartisan support from the beginning shows me that there is a culture shift happening," said Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who sponsored the bill to change the definition of mentally incapacitated and close other gaps in state law.
Sen. Warren Limmer, the Maple Grove Republican who leads the Senate's public safety committee, on Tuesday credited the work done by the criminal sexual conduct statutory reform working group as "one of the best task force reports I've ever seen."
Advocates also remembered the late GOP Sen. Jerry Relph, who died last year, for helping forge support among Minnesota Republicans for the legislation in his final years in the Senate.
The expansion of Minnesota's definition of "mentally incapacitated" would close a decades-old loophole that prevented prosecutors from filing rape charges in cases where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated.
A state Supreme Court ruling in March, granting a new trial to a man convicted of raping a woman in 2017 after she had been denied entry to a Dinkytown bar for being too intoxicated, sparked outrage and drew renewed attention to the current law.
Closing that loophole has been of special interest to Ali Nesmith, who said she was assaulted while unconscious in 2019 by a man who recorded video of her passed out and pretended to speak for her while moving her mouth to make it appear as if she consented to sex.
Nesmith reported the case to police two weeks after the assault but learned earlier this year that prosecutors were seeking only fifth-degree sexual assault charges against the man for removing her clothing without her consent.
Though the law change won't affect her case, Nesmith said she would be "thrilled" to see it pass because it would also be one more step toward a societal shift in believing victims.
"This concept where … people can feel like they can report and it will have an impact — it's incredible not only for the victims but for their communities," said Nesmith. Passage of the bill, she added, would be "a huge win for Minnesota as a state … because of the fact that you can't put these guys behind bars — they're everywhere."
Other changes in the legislation include immunity from prosecution on drug or underage alcohol charges for those who report sex assaults or who assist assault victims. That measure stemmed from input collected from University of Minnesota students, Moller said.
The public safety bill also significantly rewrites language defining various degrees of criminal sexual conduct, including an increase in the age of consent from 13 to 14.
The bill creates a new crime of "sexual extortion" to prohibit sexual contact with people forced to submit through a range of threats made against their business, reporting on their immigration status, exposing private information or sexual images, or withholding housing.
Sarah Super, a rape survivor who has spent the last four years testifying in support of changing Minnesota's sex assault laws, on Tuesday marked the legislative changes as "a symbol of progress in our understanding of psychological trauma."
The bill would end the statute of limitations for filing charges in criminal sexual conduct cases in which the victim was younger than 18 at the time of the offense.
Prosecutors have been limited to filing charges within nine years of the offense or three years after it was first reported to law enforcement.
"Whether or not eliminating the statute of limitations increases offender accountability, it still will provide a strong message to survivors that their stories matter and that healing can happen on their own timeline," Super said.
Super has worked closely with Asma Mohammed, a fellow survivor and advocacy director for Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment in Minneapolis.
"We are hoping that this year survivors who this would've helped in the past get to see it happen," said Mohammed, who noted the legislation is not retroactive.
Mohammed was not yet ready to declare victory until Gov. Tim Walz signs the public safety bill.
She said she would have preferred to see the changes to the state's sex assault laws passed as stand-alone bills, rather than tossed into uncertainty as part of a contentious omnibus bill that's subject to late-night debate and amendments.
"We are survivors that have been working on this for years, and just because of this partisan drama we are probably going to have a hard time seeing a lot of things we want to see passed," Mohammed said.
Artika Roller, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Tuesday that the Legislature's public safety bill included "critical provisions related to reducing sexual violence and improving access and well-being for victims and survivors."
She also applauded the creation of an office dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women, and a task force to study missing and murdered African American women.
"We are most proud about the fact the bill was a community effort centering the voices and needs of victims and survivors," Roller said in a statement. "There will be more work to do to complete the process and we look forward to a collaborative effort moving ahead that is inclusive of all voices and safety needs."