Updated: 3:25 p.m. | Posted: 1:30 p.m.
Groping someone's buttocks, even through clothing, may soon join the state's list of sex offenses.
A bill in the Minnesota House would strike a longstanding exemption in criminal statute for "the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of the buttocks."
"I have actually been asked the question whether or not it's illegal under our criminal sexual conduct laws to touch somebody's clothed buttocks. And I have to say it may be illegal, but not in the way you expect it," said Caroline Palmer, legal affairs manager with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
"It's not a violation under our criminal sexual conduct codes," said Palmer, who testified Wednesday before the House public safety committee. "Maybe it's an assault. Maybe it's disorderly conduct. But that is not going to match the way a victim might feel when they are violated in this way."
The language dates to 1987, when an amendment by state Sen. Allan Spear, DFL-Minneapolis, addressed what the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper called "fanny patting" back in the day.
"I don't want anyone to think this is proper behavior," Spear told the paper then. "But sometimes we must make a distinction between behavior that is improper and unsocial and behavior that we ought to criminalize."
Minnesota, however, would be better off if that were defined in law, said state Rep. Regina Barr, R-Inver Grove Heights.
"We need to close that loophole," Barr, a sponsor of the current House bill, said in an interview. "That is inappropriate behavior, period ... I think we need to have some boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and clearly people don't know what those boundaries are."
The committee approved the measure and sent it on the House floor Wednesday. A Senate version was sent to the floor by the Senate public safety committee last week.
The committee also heard a bill that would ban police officers from having sexual contact with anyone they have in custody.
State law already bans correctional officers from having sexual contact with inmates, but Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said police officers should also be banned from sexual contact with someone in their custody.
The law would no longer allow an officer to say the contact was consensual, Fenton said. Supporters of Fenton's measure say that would block potential demands by police for sex in return for being released or other consideration.
"I was appalled to find out that this was not already in law in the state of Minnesota, and we're just making sure that this doesn't happen to someone here," Fenton said.
The bill wouldn't cover legally allowed searches of clothing or body searches in the course of an investigation, she said. The committee voted to send the bill to the House floor Wednesday.