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John Marty’s anti-groping bill moves to Senate floor

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, was a little worried that people might make light of his attempt to eliminate a criminal sex-crime statute loophole that exempts groping someone’s clothed derriere as a fifth-degree offense.

He need not have been concerned. His bill sailed through the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee on March with little commentary—and no “butt-bill” jokes.

Senate File 2750 now moves to the Senate floor.

Marty told committee members that existing law is “kind of embarrassing,” not least because Marty was a co-author of the original 1988 legislation. The law was the first in Minnesota history to outlaw groping—before that, he said, it was effectively legal. But it carved out a specific exception for touching someone through their clothed buttocks. “Apparently, this was considered a lesser level of aggressiveness,” Marty said.

Marty’s co-author, Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, researched the bill’s history and learned that the exception was added to the original legislation as a floor amendment.

Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MnCASA), said Minnesota is the only state with anti-groping law that specifically exempts the buttocks from the list of protected “intimate body parts.”

“Minnesota likes to be an exceptional state in many ways but I don’t think we want to in this way,” she said.

She said the only explanation she has found for the loophole’s existence was “some kind of a coach’s exemption.” But in light of the #MeToo movement, she said, that rationale no longer seems sensible.

At the March 7 hearing, Laine read a letter from the constituent who requested the law change. Jessica Goodwin, a married mother of five from Columbia Heights, wrote that last year a man “fully groped my buttocks” as she stood holding her 1-year-old child while shepherding her kids to swimming lessons at a local fitness club.

The man turned and smirked, then left the building. When she complained to a manager, she learned the same man had fondled four other women in the same way, even following one into a locker room. He was in custody, she was told.

When she offered to make a police complaint against her assailant, she learned he would face just one count of disorderly conduct for entering the locker room. The groping incidents could not be prosecuted as sexual assault, she learned.

“I was appalled,” Goodwin wrote.

Goodwin indicated she was sexually assaulted in the past. The incident in the club was no less “demeaning, violating and traumatizing,” she said. “But our laws don’t reflect that sentiment,” she wrote.

Palmer said MnCASA is mindful that laws should not overreach and that incidents that clearly are accidental should not be prosecuted. But she fully supports Marty’s bill, she said.

“We believe the law as written now is not meeting the needs of victims in our state,” she said. “So we ask the committee to consider changing the law.”

It did, in a unanimous voice vote.

Its House companion, House File 3184, authored by Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. However, an identical GOP-backed bill (House File 2800) from Rep. Regina Barr, R-Inver Grove Heights, was scheduled to be heard by the House Public Safety committee Wednesday.

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