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Minnesota lawmakers to update state laws surrounding sexual assault, sexual misconduct

Photo of the Minnesota Capitol.

ST. PAUL — It’s 2019.

High school teachers shouldn’t be having sex with students, police shouldn’t be able to say the prisoner in handcuffs wanted it, and a man shouldn’t be able to say he’s innocent of rape just because the victim is his wife.

Oh, and you shouldn’t be excused from anti-groping laws just because you confined your grab to clothed buttocks.

That’s the philosophy of Minnesota lawmakers who are moving ahead with a number of measures that would change what are widely seen as antiquated state laws surrounding sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

There appears to be a broad bipartisan consensus behind the changes. Many, if not all of them, were approved by lawmakers last year, bolstered in part by the #MeToo movement. But they were included in a massive bill that was vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton for unrelated reasons.

This year they’ve marched ahead with little fanfare. Some are included in larger public safety bills, and some are moving ahead as standalone provisions on their own.

If any of them don’t become law, it would be the byproduct of legislative sausage-making, not because of organized opposition.

Here’s a summary of several.

Protecting high school students

Here’s an eyebrow-raiser for many: Under current Minnesota law, high school teachers, coaches, counselors and administrators are actually allowed to have sex with students if the students are older than 18. Lawmakers are proposing to remove that age exception so that such relationships would be banned, regardless of the student’s age.

There’s another potential loophole regarding high school students and teachers that lawmakers are addressing: What about the summer after graduation? Under current law, after the last day of school, all bets are off, and some advocates for sexual assault survivors warn that allows a teacher or coach to groom a student during the school year — but stop short of actual intimacy — in hopes of a legal relationship when the student graduates.

One bill in the Legislature would create what lawmakers are calling a “cooling-off period” of 120 days after the relationship of student-to-authority figure ends.

Cops and suspects

Today, jail guards are barred from having sex with inmates, psychotherapists are barred from having sex with patients under their care, and other authority figures are similarly prevented from legally having sex with people under their influence or control.

But police officers are not explicitly prohibited from having sex with suspects in their custody, even if the person is handcuffed. To be clear, a cop is not allowed to force himself onto anyone. But, today, he could claim she consented.

A proposed change in the law would bar all peace officers from sexual contact with anyone whom the officer restrains or anyone who “does not reasonably feel free to leave the officer’s presence.”

Clothed-buttocks exception

Currently under state anti-groping laws, there’s actually an exception for “the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of the buttocks” from the state’s sexual conduct statutes. Lawmakers plan to get rid of it.

No one is sure where the exception comes from, although some suspect it might have been originally intended to ensure football coaches couldn’t be prosecuted for giving players an encouraging slap on the backside. That idea seems silly, though, because that contact isn’t sexual in nature, and thus, could never be prosecuted under sexual conduct laws.

‘Marital-rape defense’

Under certain circumstances today, a a married person accused of raping their spouse could raise the defense that it wasn’t rape because … the person is their spouse.

It’s not used often in the courts, but its mere existence — a relic of a 1975 statute that also allows the defense if the couple was living together — is considered by many to be an affront to women’s rights.

A one-sentence bill in the Legislature would repeal the existing law.