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Jenny Teeson, of Andover, offers her support of House File 15, a bill that does away with a marital and cohabitation exception in the state’s sexual assault statutes. The bill’s author, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, looks on. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Jenny Teeson, of Andover, offers her support of House File 15, a bill that does away with a marital and cohabitation exception in the state’s sexual assault statutes. The bill’s author, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, looks on. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: ‘Gender-based Violence Prevention Week’ edition

Though it is hardly the only topic being discussed this week, there is so much emphasis on sex-crime legislation at the Capitol that House DFLers dubbed it “Gender-based Violence Prevention Week.”

In this special In the Hopper edition, we focus entirely on that subject.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is the lead author of Senate File 111, which calls for enhanced penalties for child-porn crimes. (File photo)

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is the lead author of Senate File 111, which calls for enhanced penalties for child-porn crimes. (File photo)

Mini-omnibus: Action on the sex-crimes legislative front actually started last week over in the Senate, where the Judiciary committee approved a dedicated anti-sex-crimes mini-omnibus package. It was filled with measures passed last year but vetoed as part of the Omnibus Prime supplemental budget bill.

Senate File 111 (lead author: Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove), has sponsors from both political parties. It passed through Limmer’s Judiciary committee in a unanimous voice vote on Jan. 22.

Its provisions include enhanced penalties for child-porn crimes. The bill would make it a felony punishable by 15 years in prison if someone produces or helps produce pornography involving minors under age 13. The same penalty would apply to repeat offenders.

The Limmer bill also requires sentencing judges to justify, on the record and in writing, any stays of adjudication they grant in a felony criminal-sex cases. It expands the statutory “person of authority” definition to include clergy, psychotherapists or others who have worked in a position of trust, any time in the last 120 days, with someone they’ve sexually victimized.

Other provisions include a prohibition against any peace officer making sexual contact with a restrained person. The bill also eliminates the marital/cohabitation rape defense that is sometimes used as a legal shield in criminal sex cases. (See the related House File 15 below.)

The Limmer bill also eliminates an exemption, as well, in the 5th-degree criminal sex conduct statutes that essentially allow intentional touching of someone’s buttocks through their clothing. “Now all touching of intimate parts will be treated the same,” Limmer said.

It also instructs the Sentencing Guidelines Commission to comprehensively review and consider modifying the sex offender grid to address the other changes made in Limmer’s bill.

SF 111 was approved and referred to the Senate Finance committee, which has yet to take it up. Its companion, House File 341 (lead author: Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul), was scheduled for a hearing  the House Public Safety committee on Wednesday, after this story’s deadline.

 

House bills: In fact, Mariani’s committee was set to take up a raft of gender-violence legislation this week. It started that work Tuesday, passing House File 15 and House File 70.

HF15 (Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids) would do away with the limited marital rape exception. The committee heard supportive testimony from Jenny Teeson, of Andover, who described the personal impact that exception has had on her.

Teeson said that in 2016, prosecutors dropped a third-degree sexual assault charge against her ex-husband upon learning about Minnesota Statutes’ obscure Chapter 609.343. That law says a person in a voluntary sexual relationship is not guilty of sexual assault when married to or cohabiting with the victim. The felony crime can only be charged if the couple lives apart or is legally separated.

The Stephenson bill would repeal that entire section of law.

Teeson, who chooses to use her soon-to-be-remarried name, ended up securing a  conviction only on a gross misdemeanor charge of invasion of privacy with a surreptitious device. That device was a video camera, she said, used while she was drugged and unconscious. Her ex-husband was sentenced to 45 days in jail but was not required to register as a sex offender, court records show.

After Teeson’s graphic and emotionally charged testimony, the bill passed on a unanimous committee voice vote. It was then referred to Ways and Means, with a recommendation that it be forwarded from there to House Judiciary.

HF 70 (Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton) is the Task Force on Murdered and Indigenous Women bill. It is making a reappearance as standalone legislation, after dying with the rest of Omnibus Prime last year.

The bill would allocate $100,000 over two years to form a 17-member, multi-disciplinary task force and to begin data collection on cases involving murdered and missing indigenous women.

Once formed, the group would look for ways to continue tracking and collecting that data while serving as a liaison to government, law enforcement agencies and other institutions involved in the issue. The panel eventually would recommend measures to prevent violence, which Kunesh-Podein said is endemic in indigenous communities, and to assist victims. Its report to the Legislature would be due on Dec. 15, 2020.

As it did last year, the committee again heard harrowing testimony Tuesday from women like Mysti Babineau, a Red Lake Nation member who described her mother’s disappearance and her own rape when she was a child. As a middle schooler, she watched her grandmother’s murder and says her hands still bear defensive scars from trying to deflect the assailant’s knife. She suffered further sexual attacks after that.

Her story is far too common among Native American women, she said.

“This is not something new,” Babineau said while prevailing on members to support the bill. “This is not something just brought in by the pipelines. Five hundred years we’ve been waiting for this.”

The committee passed the bill by unanimous voice vote and referred it to Ways and Means. Its next stop after that likely would be Government Operations.

On Jan. 30 and Jan. 31, Mariani’s Public Safety committee was scheduled to hear eight more gender-violence-related bills, including his own House File 341, the companion to Limmer’s mini-omnibus package. However, in a late change, three of those bills—including Mariani’s HF341—were withdrawn from Wednesday’s agenda. They do not yet appear to have been rescheduled.

 

Ex-AG weighs in: Former Attorney General Lori Swanson made a rare appearance before a legislative committee to present findings of the Attorney General’s Working Group on Sexual Assault.

The report, published in December 2018, was prompted by a Star Tribune investigative series, “Denied Justice,” published last year. Among many conclusions, the newspaper found that law enforcement fails to assign investigators to sexual assault cases 25 percent of the time, frequently fails to collect evidence and often neglects to interview suspects.

The AG’s report contains 25 recommendations to remedy the problem . They are directed at the Legislature, law enforcement, prosecutors and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. Swanson and former Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson, the working group’s chair, presented the findings to senators Monday.

Among other suggestions, the report recommends that:

  • Lawmakers require law enforcement agencies to adopt written policies for responding to and investigating sexual assault cases.
  • Legislators require the Bureau of Criminal Investigation to train local agencies in “trauma-informed investigations” and to appropriate money toward that cause.
  • The Legislature amend the Victims’ Rights Statue (Section 611A.02) and expand access to victim advocates.
  • The Legislature repeal the voluntary relationships statute—this, again, is the subject of Stephenson’s HF15.
  • Law enforcement agencies adopt step-by-step guidelines for investigating sexual assaults. The report also recommends that agencies train peace officers to respond to reports in a victim-centered, trauma-informed way.
  • Prosecutors should expand their review of law enforcement investigations and become more directly involved in them. The report also challenges county attorneys to consider taking on more difficult cases, “even when evidence to prove a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt is less than certain.”
  • The POST Board should adopt a model sexual assault investigation policy and require police training in victim-centered responses to sexual assault reports.

 

Though it has its own criminal prosecution division, the report offers no guidance to the attorney general’s office. Swanson said it would make no sense to offer such advice, because the office has no authority to investigate crimes without a county attorney’s invitation to assist.

Swanson said that the Star Tribune report has focused Minnesotans’ attention on statewide flaws in the way authorities deal with sexual assaults.

“We are not a leader right now,” she said. “It’s going to take a collective effort of all of us to change. And I think we can change.”

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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