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Protesters Push Minnesota Lawmakers To Pass Stronger Sexual Assault Laws

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) -- A few hundred protesters rallied at the capitol on Monday to demand Minnesota lawmakers update state law to make it easier to seek justice for victims who are sexually assaulted while intoxicated.

The protest follows a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling last week that said victims who voluntarily drink alcohol or are under the influence of drugs are not "mentally incapacitated" according to state law. The unanimous decision, which granted a man convicted of criminal sexual misconduct a new trial, is mounting pressure for the lawmakers to act.

The court in its decision said the legislature has the "unique institutional capacity" to change policy.

Right now the law defines "mentally incapacitated" as someone who is under the influence without agreement, like drinking something spiked with "date rape" drugs, and cannot consent to sex.

Bills at the capitol would update the statute language so that anyone too intoxicated to consent — regardless of how they became under the influence — would be considered "mentally incapacitated," making it easier to prosecute alcohol and drug-related sexual assaults.

One by one, women shared their experiences of sexual assault on Monday in a plea to fix this legal loophole.

Organizers Kenna Groschen and Madisyn Priestley started a Facebook group urging people to join them to speak out, unsure of how many would show up. But on Monday, more than 100 people did. One by one, women shared their experiences of sexual assault in a plea to fix this legal loophole.

Priestley, a 19-year-old student at the University of Minnesota, said when she learned about the ruling, she felt compelled to act as a survivor of sexual assault.

"I was under the influence — I was voluntarily drunk when it happened to me. And I know that a rape kit would have been the only way to prove that I was sexually assaulted," she said. "And to hear [about the ruling], that is extremely, extremely heartbreaking."

"It's really hard to sit back and watch this stuff happen," she added.

Proposals at the capitol have bipartisan support and they have the support of county and state prosecutors. The bills would also make sexual extortion a new crime under state law.

Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, said the ruling "really just demonstrates how terrible the definition of 'mentally incapacitated' is."

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office told WCCO it supports updating the statutes and so does Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

"Though it is not the attorney general's case, we encourage the legislature to take up this issue and modify the statutes to close the loophole identified by the Supreme Court," Ellison said in a statement. "Our laws should make clear that sexual violence against women is never acceptable and has severe penalties."

But similar efforts have previously failed to pass. Priestley said the matter is urgent and if there is Republican and Democrat support, lawmakers need to make it a priority. Both the Senate and House bill do not have hearings scheduled.

"No means no. Drunk is not consent. Being forced or coerced is not consent," Priestley said. "We need to make sure that these legislators take us seriously because if they're not going to defend us, we have nothing to protect us."

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