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Minnesota Supreme Court Clarifies Meaning of ‘Mentally Incapacitated’ Regarding Consent to Sexual Contact

A jury convicted Francios Momolu Khalil of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant in violation of § 609.344, subdivision 1(d) (2020). The complainant, 18-year-old “J.S.,” had voluntarily consumed five shots of vodka and a prescription narcotic pill. After a bouncer at a local bar refused to admit her due to her inebriated condition, she met Khalil. He drove her to a house, promising they were going to a party. But there was no party. J.S. passed out on a couch. She was awakened by Khalil penetrating her vagina with his penis. She said, “No, I don’t want to,” but Khalil continued, saying to J.S. “you’re so hot and you turn me on.” J.S. again lost consciousness and awoke several hours later with her shorts around her ankles. She reported the rape to the police, and Khalil was apprehended.

At trial, the district court instructed the jury that to find Khalil guilty it had to find he “knew or had reason to know that [J.S.] was mentally incapacitated or physically helpless.” The district court also instructed “[a] person is mentally incapacitated if she lacks judgment to give reasoned consent to sexual penetration due to influence of alcohol, a narcotic, or any other substance without her agreement.” During deliberations, the jury sought clarification as to whether “mentally incapacitated” meant she could be under the influence of alcohol or a narcotic she administered herself or did those intoxicants have to be administered to her by someone else without her knowledge. Over Khalil’s objection, the district court answered “you can be mentally incapacitated following consumption of alcohol that one administers to one’s self or narcotics that one administers to one’s self or separately something else that’s administered without someone’s agreement.”

On appeal, Khalil argued that the district court’s instruction on the definition of mentally incapacitated was in error. A divided panel of the court of appeals rejected his argument and affirmed. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted review.

The Court observed § 609.344, subd. 1(d) states in relevant part: “A person who engages in sexual penetration with another is guilty of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree if any of the following circumstances exist ... (d) the actor knows or has reason to know the complainant is mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless[.]” [Emphasis added by Court.] To convict Khalil, the State had to prove that when he penetrated J.S., he knew or had reason to know that J.S. was mentally incapacitated, as defined in § 609.344, subd. 1(d).

The Court noted that a commonsense understanding of the term mentally incapacitated could include a person who cannot exercise judgment sufficiently to express consent due to intoxication resulting from the voluntary consumption of alcohol. However, it could not rely on that commonsense understanding of the term because the Legislature had expressly defined the term in § 609.341, subd. 7.

When the Legislature defines a term, it intends, to some degree, to depart from the ordinary meaning of that term, and there is a presumption that the ordinary, literal meaning of the term is not to be substituted for the definition provided by the Legislature. U.S. Jaycees v. McClure, 305 N.W.2d 764 (Minn. 1981). Additionally, when the Legislature’s intended meaning is clear from the text, courts must apply that meaning and not what the courts may wish the law was or what the courts think the law should be. State v. Stay, 935 N.W.2d 428 (Minn. 2019).

For the purpose of criminal sexual conduct offenses, the Legislature defined “mentally incapacitated” to mean “a person under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, or any other substance, administrated to that person without that person’s agreement, lacks judgment to give reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.” § 609.341, subd. 7. In the instant case, there was evidence that Khalil knew J.S. was under the influence of alcohol, but no evidence to suggest the alcohol was administered to her without her consent.

The State urged the Court to read the definition of mentally incapacitated to mean that only substances other than alcohol – a narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance – had to be administered without the complainant’s consent. In contrast, Khalil argued that the correct interpretation of the statutory definition is as follows: “mentally incapacitated means that a person under the influence of alcohol, administered to that person without the person’s agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.”

The Court rejected the State’s tortured reading of the plain text of the statute, explaining that the “text, structure, and punctuation of the Legislature’s one-sentence definition … support Khalil’s interpretation of the statute, namely, that a person is mentally incapacitated only if under the influence of alcohol administered to the person without the person’s agreement.” The Court noted that the “sentence is structured as an easily digestible series of similar nouns that describe intoxicating substances … followed by a qualifier (“administered to that person without that person’s agreement”) that … sensibly applies to each noun.” The Court similarly dispensed with the State’s other alternative arguments for its interpretation of the statute by invoking basic rules of grammar and punctuation.

The Court concluded that mentally incapacitated under the statute “means that a person under the influence of alcohol is not mentally incapacitated unless the alcohol was administered to the person under its influence without that that person’s agreement.” As such, the district court erred in its instructions to the jury, the Court ruled.

Erroneous jury instructions regarding an element of the charged offense requires a new trial, unless it’s established beyond a reasonable doubt that the error didn’t have a significant impact on the verdict. State v. Struzk 869 N.W.2d 280 (Minn. 2015).

Neither party claims that Khalil administered any substance to J.S. prior to the event at issue. Moreover, according to the Court, it’s “impossible to know whether the jury relied on the mental incapacitation or physical helplessness elements of [the statute] in arriving at its verdict.” Thus, the Court ruled that it cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the erroneous jury instructions didn’t have a significant impact on the verdict.

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