Minnesota’s 400-plus law enforcement agencies would be required to adopt and follow a state-issued policy on how to best investigate sexual assault in legislation proposed this week.
The bipartisan bill is designed to address widespread failings of investigation and prosecution of sexual assault in the state.
The chiefs of those agencies would need to ensure that their investigators follow those policies, or face sanctions from a state licensing board.
“A victim-survivor should expect the same kind of quality investigation no matter where he or she reports around the state,” said Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, one of the two authors. The other is Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake.
A parallel bill will be introduced in the state Senate next week, said Sen. Matt Little, D-Lakeville, who helped draft the legislation. The bill is co-sponsored by four other Senate Democrats. “I think it brings transparency and accountability,” said Little.
O’Neill said Tuesday she also plans to introduce legislation to rework Minnesota’s laws relating to sexual assault of minors, often called statutory rape, and sharpen the definition of consent.
The bill also changes the definition of mental incapacitation by drugs or alcohol. The act, known as “Hannah’s Law,” is named in honor of Hannah Traaseth, who was 13 when she said she was raped in 2015 by two 21-year-old men who plied her with an unknown substance. Prosecutors declined to charge the men.
Moller said other bills related to sexual assault will be introduced during this session, including one she’s sponsoring that would form a working group to examine and rewrite the state’s criminal sexual conduct laws.
Little said he started working on the legislation following a nine-part Star Tribune investigation that documented shortcomings in the investigation and prosecution of rape and sexual assault reports in Minnesota. A review of more than 1,500 case files from across the state found that police routinely failed to interview witnesses, question suspects and collect physical evidence from crime scenes. Only a quarter of the cases were sent to prosecutors, and less than one in 10 resulted in a conviction.
The legislation would require all of the departments across the state to adopt a model policy currently being developed by the state’s police licensing board (POST) on how to effectively handle sexual assault cases. The board wants to assure that the policy takes into account “best practices and ensures a thorough investigation of these cases and that victims are treated respectfully.”
The board is voting on its model policy and what those best practices should be on Thursday. It would also have the authority to inspect departments to ensure they’re complying with the policy. If they don’t, the board can take away an officer’s license or file a court injunction to force them to follow the guidelines. Moller said the POST Board supports her proposed legislation.
Little said that if rape victims feel that police didn’t handle their cases appropriately, they can ask the departments to show if they’re following the required guidelines or file a report to the POST board.
“It empowers those who are trying to report,” Little said.
The bill is similar to a recommendation proposed by a task force formed in response to the Star Tribune’s reporting by former Attorney General Lori Swanson. That task force issued 25 recommendations in December, including calls for the Legislature to improve officer training and collect better data on such investigations.
Other changes are happening around the state. Police departments and county attorneys are dedicating more staff and other resources to sex assault cases. Some of the women who told their stories have seen renewed interest in their cases. In St. Paul, Cherrelle McGowan, who said she was assaulted while on a date, learned that Ramsey County prosecutors had reopened her case and charged the man with first degree sexual misconduct. In Chisholm, police reopened the case of Katie Finch, who reported being raped by an acquaintance after an evening out with friends, and sent it to prosecutors.
Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626