Supreme Court of Minnesota: While deciding instant matter wherein the Court had to determine whether the appellant committed a third-degree criminal sexual conduct; i.e. sexual penetration with another person when the actor knows or has reason to know that the complainant is ‘mentally incapacitated’; Justice Paul Thissen held that the legislative definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’ as stated in Minn. Stat. Section 609.341, sub-division 7 (2020), does not include a person who is voluntarily intoxicated by alcohol.
J.S. was intoxicated after drinking alcohol and taking prescription narcotics. She went to a bar with a friend but was denied entry due to her intoxication. The appellant Francios Momolu Khalil approached J.S. outside of the bar and invited her to accompany him to a supposed party at a house. After arriving at the house, J.S. passed out and woke up to find Khalil penetrating her vagina with his penis. J.S. contacted the Minneapolis police department to report the incident. Upon conducting an investigation Khalil was charged with one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant.
The District Court jury sought to clarify whether it was sufficient that J.S. voluntarily consumed the alcohol or whether Khalil or another person had to have administered the alcohol to J.S. without her agreement for her to qualify as mentally incapacitated. Upon perusal and interpretation of the relevant law, the jury found Khalil to be guilty of third degree criminal sexual conduct.
Minn. Stat. Section 609.341, sub-division 7 (2020) provides that ‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance, administered to that person, without the person’s agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.
The issue before the Court was regarding the proper interpretation of ‘mentally incapacitated’ and whether “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” includes that a person can be mentally incapacitated under the statute when such person voluntarily ingests alcohol, or whether the alcohol must be administered to the person without his or her agreement.
The State contended that ‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person under the influence of alcohol, however, consumed, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.
The State also asserted that Khalil’s reading of the statute is incorrect because people normally do not speak of “administering” alcohol in everyday speech. It is not uncommon, however, for the word “administer” to be paired with the word “alcohol” in the context of criminal sexual conduct statutes.
The State further argued that the word “any” in the phrase “any other substance” breaks the link between the qualifier “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” and the nouns alcohol, narcotic, and anesthetic.
Per contra, the appellant argued that ‘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’s analysis centered on the principles vis-à-vis interpretation of statutes. The Court observed that the issue regarding interpretation of Minn. Stat. Section 609.341, sub-division 7 (2020) has arisen only because of the District Court’s instruction to the jury to interpret ‘mentally incapacitated’. The Court stated that, “Although district courts enjoy “considerable latitude in selecting jury instructions,” the instructions “must fairly and adequately explain the law of the case and not materially misstate the law”.
It was observed that the purposes of statutory interpretation is to “ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature” and to reflect a structural understanding that legislators are the elected representatives of the people and legislative bodies are institutionally better positioned than courts to sort out conflicting interests and information surrounding complex public policy issues.
The Court noted that the text, structure, and punctuation of the Legislature’s one-sentence definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’ supports the appellant’s interpretation, namely that- a person is mentally incapacitated only if under the influence of alcohol administered to the person without the person’s agreement. “The sentence is structured as an easily digestible series of similar nouns that describe intoxicating substances (alcohol, narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance) followed by a qualifier (“administered to that person without the person’s agreement”) that sensibly applies to each noun”.
The Court noted that it takes modest mental energy “to process the individual nouns in the list present in the definition of mentally incapacitated, making it easy to apply the qualifier across them all”.
The Court pointed out that it was non convinced with the State’s interpretation that the phrase “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” should not be read to apply to alcohol – “Significant flaw in this argument is that the State plucks the single word “administered” out of the context of the entire phrase ‘administered to that person without the person’s agreement’”. The State erred in isolating the word ‘administered’ from the rest of the qualifier which is also demonstrated when one considers the other nouns in the series to which the qualifier applies. “Thus, the State’s narrow focus on the purported linguistic ill fit between the words alcohol and administered does not logically support the ultimate conclusion that the State asks us to reach”.
The Court stated that the appellant offered “the more reasonable explanation for the inclusion of the word “any” in “any other substance” by arguing that the Legislature intended to capture all substances, the consumption of which could deprive a person of judgment to give a reasoned consent”.
The Court pointed out that The State simply assumes that a person may become mentally incapacitated (as defined by the Legislature in Section 609.341, sub-division 7) by voluntarily consuming alcohol. “The State’s argument that the Legislature must have intended felony classification for sexual penetration with a complainant who lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent due to voluntary intoxication does not withstand scrutiny in light of the statutes’ structural complexity (five degrees of crime) and the differentiated punishments imposed for various types of nonconsensual sexual penetration and sexual contact”.
Upon detailed perusal, the Court concluded that the legislative definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’ is unambiguous and clearly means that substances (including alcohol) which cause a person to lack judgment to give a reasoned consent must be administered to the person without the person’s agreement. Therefore, Section 609.341, sub-division 7 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 person’s agreement.
With this conclusion, the Minnesota SC also reversed the decision of the District Court which found Khalil guilty. The case was remanded to the District Court for a new trial. [State of Minnesota v. Francios Momolu Khalil, A19-1281, decided on 24-03-2021]
Sucheta Sarkar, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.
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