MN Supreme Court: No jail time for rapist was inappropriate

In a decision a justice calls “rare”, the Minnesota Supreme Court today overruled a lower court in Crookston that had let a man convicted of rape avoid prison.

Jose Soto, with help from another man, raped a woman at a party in East Grand Forks in May 2012 in a sexual assault that lasted for more than two hours.

In a deal with prosecutors, Soto pleaded guilty on the assumption he’d be sentenced to 12 years in prison, the amount called for under Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines. He told the court he didn’t remember much about the evening because he was drunk, but admitted the facts presented would lead to a guilty verdict.

In a presentencing interview with corrections officials, Soto said:

I had consensual sex with a female who was cheating on her boyfriend and to get out of it she said I raped her! I am not a violent person and do feel as [if] the woman I had sex with is a liar and a coward and I do not deserve to be in jail for something I didn’t do!

Without explanation, the Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center recommended Soto as a candidate for outpatient treatment and district court judge Jeffrey Remick stayed his 12-year-sentence, putting him on probation for 30 years instead.

“I didn’t want to be disrespectful,” the victim told the Grand Forks Herald after she stormed out of the court. “But I was livid and upset and I had to get out of there. I wanted to say to the judge, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’”

Justice David Lillehaug continued the story in his ruling (pdf).

Telling Soto that he would have an opportunity to correct his behavior, the district court emphasized that Soto was “only 37 years of age,” that he did not have many serious crimes in his record, and that it was “primarily alcohol that night [that] was the problem.”

The district court also remarked that Soto’s attitude in court was “largely . . . respectful” and that “this particular type of event seems largely out of character.” Finally, the district court noted that Soto “seem[ed] to have some family support” and that focusing on his 10-year-old son might motivate him to correct his behavior. The district court did not say anything about Soto’s culpability in sexually assaulting [the victim] or whether putting Soto on supervised probation would protect public safety.

None of that, Lillehaug wrote in an opinion that divided the court, is a valid reason for avoiding prison.

The district court’s only explanation for its conclusion was that Soto was young enough that he still “ha[d] an opportunity to correct [his] behavior.” But if that reasoning applies to a 37-year-old, it is difficult to see which defendants it would not reach, except the most elderly or infirm. Further, at 37, Soto was older than 60 percent of defendants convicted of criminal sexual conduct in 2012 (the last year for which data are available).

Soto did not have a clean record; he had been convicted of two counts of possessing drug paraphernalia, two counts of driving with a suspended license, and one count of simple assault against the mother of his son. We do not see anything in Soto’s criminal history that would set him apart and make him particularly amenable to probation on a conviction of first-degree sexual conduct

Lillehaug’s opinion that staying the sentence for rape is “inappropriate and disproportionate” drew dissents from several justices who are normally on opposite sides of many cases.

“While another trial court or the members of our court might have arrived at a different conclusion, that alone does not make this situation the “‘rare case’ warranting our intervention with the [trial] court’s discretion,” Justice Alan Page, a member of the court’s more liberal wing, said. Page was joined by Chief Justice Lori Gildea and Justice G. Barry Anderson, two generally conservative members of the court.

The case now goes back to the district court for sentencing.