Eaton: The line between voluntary and involuntary intoxication is a tightrope

Laws cannot be enforced if they don’t yet exist.


by Emily Eaton

Editor’s note: This column contains references to sexual assault. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, you can seek help at the Aurora Center at (612) 626-9111 or at RAINN at (800) 656-4673.

Let’s play a game.

What judicial body punishes the possession of 42.5 grams of marijuana more seriously than the rape of a voluntarily intoxicated person?

If you answered, “What is the Minnesota Supreme Court?” you’d be correct.

On March 24, 2021, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a man cannot be charged with felony rape when the victim chose to drink beforehand. Read that again. The Minnesota Supreme Court has equated voluntary intoxication with consent. Don’t just cover your drinks at the bar, ladies. It’s safer to set them down entirely, lest you experience a traumatic event and have your pain go unrecognized and the perpetrator unpunished because you chose to order a rum and Coke at Sally’s.

Sexual assault is rampant in higher education: At least 26.4% of undergraduate women across the country will report being raped or assaulted during their time on campus, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). The blurry line between voluntary and involuntary intoxication doesn’t help. Should women avoid tailgates and fraternity parties for fear of being called on to play beer pong or boom cup, or God forbid, someone ask them to take part in a shotski? Drinking is a component of college culture, whether we like it or not. Blackout or backout is an unhealthy mindset, but choosing to do so shouldn’t mean that a perpetrator walks free.

The Supreme Court decision is only enforcement of an already cataclysmic law. A bill was put forth in 2019 to make voluntary drunkenness grounds for felony rape charges, but all that came from it was a study group. The result of the study is a new bipartisan bill in the Minnesota House of Representatives that modifies and clarifies criminal sexual conduct.

Still, the Minnesota Supreme Court’s interpretation of what mental incapacitation entails will only shrink the already low numbers of victims who actually turn to the authorities for support. The odds are against rape survivors from the beginning. According to RAINN, 70% of rape victims experience moderate to severe psychological distress in the aftermath — a higher percentage than for any other violent crime. Victims of rape are 13 times more likely to commit suicide than noncrime victims, like sex workers and recreational drug users. And, only 4.6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault are incarcerated. In fact, more robbers go to jail than rapists. We would rather punish those who steal our belongings than those who take our autonomy, safety and peace of mind.

The decision came down to the definition of mental incapacitation in the law. The Supreme Court argued that the lower court that convicted the perpetrator, Francois Momolu Khalil, previously had stretched the definition too far. The new ruling defines “mental incapacitation” in Minnesota as only referring to intoxication against one’s will or knowledge. Justice Paul Thissen explained that decisions cannot be made based on “what we may wish the law was” and must rely on the law as it is written.

The solution here is clear: Minnesota legislators must amend the law to protect those unable to give consent. Perpetrators of sexual violence on intoxicated victims must be held accountable to the fullest extent — an individual’s decision to drink does not lessen the gravity of their crime. Through this decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court has excused perpetrators preying on young, drunk women. Enacting legislation, like the aforementioned bill sponsored by Rep. Kelly Moller DFL-Shoreview, would reverse that. By closing the voluntary intoxication loophole, Minnesota would empower survivors to tell their stories and ensure that perpetrators face the consequences of their actions.

We teach women to suffer in silence. When they have the strength to come forward, the law needs to be there to support them. There is so much about this decision that angers me, from the gray areas to the victim-blaming and grammar discussions in the case notes. However, what upsets me the most is knowing that a young woman had to sit and watch her alleged rapist get let off easy.