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Like many criminal cases, Minnesota v. Khalil “arises from an experience no person should ever have to endure.”[1] As the Minnesota Supreme Court summarized the undisputed facts: the victim, “J.S. was intoxicated after drinking alcohol and taking a prescription narcotic. She went to a bar with a friend but was denied entry due to her intoxication. 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 [sexually penetrating] her.”[2] Yet, as will be seen, Khalil could not be found guilty of the crime with which he was charged because there was no evidence presented that he knew or had reason to know that J.S. was “mentally incapacitated” as that term is defined in the applicable state statute.

Minnesota law provides that the crime of third-degree criminal sexual conduct consists of sexual penetration with another person when the actor knows or has reason to know that the victim is “mentally incapacitated.”[3] The law, in turn, defines “mentally incapacitated” as “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.”[4]

The court was thus faced with the question “whether a person can be mentally incapacitated under the statute when the person voluntarily ingests alcohol, or whether the alcohol must be administered to the person without his or her agreement.”[5] Holding that the statute at issue requires that the substance be administered to the person without consent, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Khalil’s conviction.

As noted above, it is undisputed that on a night in 2017, the victim, J.S., “consumed approximately five shots of vodka and one pill of a prescription narcotic.”[6] Later that same night she and a friend met Khalil and two other men outside a local bar.[7] J.S. then “blacked out” at a house in North Minneapolis where the group had gone, ostensibly to a party.[8] J.S. awoke some time later to find Khalil sexually penetrating her.[9] J.S. lost consciousness again, then awoke some time later and left the house with her friend.[10] J.S. then went to an area hospital to have a rape kit done, and she thereafter reported the incident to the police.[11] After an investigation, the State charged Khalil with one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant.[12] The court noted that the State decided not to charge Khalil with the gross misdemeanor crime of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct.[13] That lesser charge criminalizes nonconsensual sexual contact, and both parties on appeal conceded that Khalil’s alleged conduct would fall within the ambit of that misdemeanor charge.[14]

At Khalil’s trial, the judge instructed the jury that, to find Khalil guilty, they had to find that “Mr. Khalil knew or had reason to know that [the victim] was mentally incapacitated or physically helpless.”[15] The judge went on to instruct the jury that “[a] person is mentally incapacitated if she lacks the judgment to give reasoned consent to sexual penetration due to the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, or any other substance administered without her agreement.”[16]

During deliberations, the jury requested clarification on the element of mental incapacitation.[17] According to the court “the jury sought to clarify whether it was sufficient that [the victim] voluntarily consumed the alcohol or whether Khalil or another person had to have administered the alcohol to [the victim] without her agreement for her to qualify as mentally incapacitated under Minn. Stat. section 609.341, subd. 7.”[18] The judge, over Khalil’s objection, instructed the jury that “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.”[19] The jury then convicted Khalil.[20]

On appeal, Khalil challenged the jury instruction on mental incapacity, arguing that it was inconsistent with the plain language of the statute.[21] A divided court of appeals rejected that argument and affirmed Khalil’s conviction.[22] On further review, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with Khalil and reversed his conviction.[23]

Citing the plain language of the statute, the court determined that it was constrained to reverse. The court noted that while “[i]t is certainly true 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,”[24] the court’s task is not merely to apply commonsense understandings of statutory terms. In this case, the court observed, “we do not look at the ordinary, commonsense understanding of mentally incapacitated because the Legislature expressly defined the term in the general definitions section of Minnesota’s criminal sexual conduct statutes[.]”[25]

The court then noted again that that definition was straightforward: “mentally incapacitated,” for purposes of the statute at issue, 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 penetration.”[26] The court noted, and the State did not contend otherwise, that there was no evidence that Khalil knew or had reason to know that the victim was administered alcohol without her agreement.[27] But, the court stated, there was sufficient evidence that Khalil knew or had reason to know that the victim was under the influence of alcohol.[28] The court was thus faced with the question of whether the legislature’s definition of mental incapacity, quoted above, was limited to “circumstances where the state of mental incapacitation results from consumption of alcohol administered to the complainant involuntarily without her agreement.”[29] Rebuffing the State’s contrary contention, the court held that, as a matter of pure statutory interpretation, it plainly was so limited. The trial judge’s instructions did not reflect that and instead allowed the jury to convict on insufficient facts. This error warranted reversal.

Whether or not the statute as written is sensible or laudable, or something less, was not an issue for the court:

Of course, we offer no judgment as to whether the Legislature’s choice about the level of criminal liability and punishment that should be imposed on a person who sexually penetrates another person knowing (or negligently unaware) that the other person lacks the judgment to consent due to voluntary intoxication is appropriate. If the Legislature intended for the definition of mentally incapacitated to include voluntarily intoxicated persons, it is the Legislature’s prerogative to reexamine the statute and amend it accordingly.[30]

The court further outlined in a comprehensive footnote the Minnesota Legislature’s recent attempts to “sort out complex policy issues [by] amend[ing] Minnesota’s criminal sexual conduct statutes, including revisions to address the Legislature’s concern about a potential gap concerning sexual penetration of, or sexual conduct with, voluntarily intoxicated persons.”[31] Thus, although the average person would surely agree that the defendant committed a grave wrong against the victim, the law as such, and as interpreted by the court, provided no basis for a conviction. And that, as the court observed, is the proper work of the people’s representatives, not its courts of law.[32]

[1] State v. Khalil, 956 N.W.2d 627, 629 (2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. (emphasis added)

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 630.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. See also Minn. Stat. section 609.344, subd. 1(d) (2020).

[13] Khalil, 956 N.W.2d at 631.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] State v. Khalil, 948 N.W. 2d 156, 163 (Minn. App. 2020)

[23] Khalil, 956 N.W.2d at 643.

[24] Id. at 632.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. (emphasis added).

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 642 (internal citation and quotation omitted).

[31] Id. at 633 n.7.

[32] Id. at 633.