The Last Sodomites
Now Minnesotans Can Be as Nasty as They Wanna Be
July 18, 2001
401 North Third Street, Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55401
By Meleah Maynard
For more than a century, oral and anal sex have been illegal in Minnesota,
even in private and even when both parties are consenting adults. So in May,
when Hennepin County District Court Judge Delila Pierce ruled that the states
anti-sodomy law was unconstitutional because it violated individuals right
to privacy, plenty of people rejoiced.
The ruling came as the result of a lawsuit filed against the state by the
Minnesota Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a group of plaintiffs who could
potentially have been charged with sodomy: a Minneapolis schoolteacher who
could have lost his license if convicted under the law; a lesbian attorney who
could have been evicted for having sex in her own home, because her lease
prohibits illegal activity; and a married quadriplegic man for whom the law
prohibited the only forms of sex he was able to enjoy.
At first, the decision was hailed as more a matter of principle than a
matter of practice, since few people actually have been prosecuted for
participating in the sex acts banned by the law: just 75 since the statute was
put on the books in the 1880s, and only five in the last three years,
according to the Minnesota State Court System.
But as the ripples from Judge Pierces ruling spread through Minnesotas
criminal justice system, they are raising an unexpected legal question. These
days, attorneys say, few people are prosecuted specifically for participating
in sodomyoral or anal sexbut a larger, unknown number end up convicted
of the crime. Thats because individuals who are charged with more serious
sex crimes are often allowed to plead guilty to the lesser crime. For example,
says Assistant State Public Defender Lawrence Pry, some of the offenses that
are typically pleaded down to sodomy are punishable by up to four years in
prison. But sodomy is a gross misdemeanor, which calls for a maximum of up to
one year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine.
From a prosecutors point of view, the loss of the law as a
plea-bargaining tool doesnt mean much, says Phil Carruthers of the Ramsey
County Attorneys Office. He figures that only about two cases involving
such plea bargains have come through the office in the past 30 years.
"That might have happened years ago for any number of reasons,"
Carruthers says. "But today if we were dealing with a forcible-rape case,
for example, we wouldnt allow someone to plead down to sodomy, because
[sodomy] is usually considered to be a consensual crime. Letting someone plead
to that minimizes the offense too much. Wed just take the case to
Its harder to say just exactly what the laws demise means for those
previously convicted under it, because past Minnesota Supreme Court decisions
say conflicting things about what happens after a law is declared
unconstitutional. Some precedents, Pry says, suggest that those found guilty
of sodomy should now be released from jail and their convictions should be
wiped from their records. Those who have already served their time should be
able to come forward and ask that charges be removed from their records, as
But, he continues, other past decisions seem to indicate that defendants
charged with sodomy have the right to redress only if their attorneys called
the sodomy laws constitutionality into question during court proceedings at
the time. If nothing was said back then, nothing can be done now.
When the MCLU filed the recently concluded suit, executive director Chuck
Samuelson was unaware that Pierces ruling would have an effect on the
handling of sex-crime cases. "Over the years the sodomy law has primarily
been used in greater Minnesota against people that the powers that be in small
towns wanted to run out of Dodge," says Samuelson. "But we pursued
this because we believe people needed to really think about whether they
wanted government deciding that the only way to have lawful sex was to be a
married heterosexual and in the missionary position." The MCLU has been
fighting to have the law struck down for more than two decades.
"This was obviously a statute whose time had passed for political and
ideological reasons," says Pry. But on the other hand, he says, the law
also acted as a safety valve. "A vindictive prosecutor can charge you
with anything they want. Being able to plead to sodomy to escape bogus charges
was a good thing in those cases."
Just how far Judge Pierces ruling will reach remains to be seen. Pry is
also concerned that some state law-enforcement officialsparticularly those
in counties that have been willing to prosecute people suspected of having
oral or anal sexwont abide by her decision. He predicts that someone
will eventually challenge her ruling and take the case to a higher court.
The matter could end up in the court of appeals anyway, if Minnesota
Attorney General Mike Hatch decides to challenge Pierces verdict, which was
technically a loss for his office. A spokesperson from Hatchs office says
the attorney general is still considering his options. Even if Hatch does not
oppose striking the law down, there might be good reason to appeal, some
attorneys say; appeals court decisions would be more automatically binding
across the state.
So far no one has contacted the Minnesota State Public Defenders Office
for help appealing a sodomy conviction, Pry says. But he wants those who are
thinking about it to consider the fact that if they were convicted of sodomy
by pleading down from a more serious charge, dropping the sodomy conviction
may lead to prosecution for the more serious charges originally filed against
them. In many cases, he says, it wont be worth it. "I would tell
anyone who called what I always tell people who are thinking about withdrawing
a plea," he says. "You have gotten a good deal here and things
could get worse for you."
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