April is Sexual Assault Awareness (and Prevention) Month. This one’s for you, aimed first at girls going away to college. But it’s really applicable for anyone moving out-of-state. Or who doesn’t know their state’s rape laws.
Laws around crime, in this case sexual assault, differ state by state. Maybe you already knew that, but I’m surprised by how many of my students did not.
Rape laws vary across the country. Most law around crime is in a state’s domain, the federal government only claims an interest in specific and limited situations.
So if you’re moving — or will be attending school — out-of-state, you should educate yourself. If you’re not off to college or moving, do you know something about the rape laws where you live?
I’ve been telling teens this in my Off to College classes for several years. It came to the top of my attention a couple of weeks ago thanks to this article in the Washington Post. A man’s conviction for third-degree criminal sexual conduct was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Their ruling centered around state law that defined a victim as being “mentally incapacitated” due to too much alcohol or drugs ONLY if said alcohol or drugs were administered without her knowledge. In this particular case, the victim had drank a lot before, went to a “party” that really wasn’t, passed out, and woke up to find the “host” engaging in sex with her. She told him she didn’t want to have sex, but he insisted and continued, and she again lost consciousness.
The Supreme Court ruled that because the woman had drank beforehand, she was not “mentally incapacitated” according to the law’s definition. And, according to this article, most states in this country have similar laws.
This reminded me of another article I’d read a few years ago. In North Carolina there was this “right to finish,” where you could not change your mind about engaging in sex after you began, even if the other person began getting violent or abusive. Fortunately, it’s been changed — after being on the books for about 40 years.
Back to Minnesota. If the rape law is that clear, why was the defendant originally convicted, and the conviction upheld by an appeals court? I’m not an attorney, don’t play one on TV, and certainly not a law expert. However, I did find a very useful resource. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) has a webpage that summarizes state sex crimes definitions and penalties. I looked up Minnesota. I have to restate that I know nothing about the case other than what I read in the article in WaPo. And there is another definition under third-degree criminal sexual conduct: physically helpless. One of the characteristics of physically helpless is being “not conscious.” Which, according to the article, this victim was.
I cannot say if the lower courts were relying on one definition in the law, and the Supreme Court chose a different definition to take priority. If so, that is an issue of power, of which ruling body has the power to take possibly contradictory sections of law and decide whose view prevails.
My advice to girls (and boys) off to college: get familiar with the law of that state (check on the RAINN site). And don’t count on it to be obvious.
Stay safe, live life.