On September 28, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court (in the case of C.R. v. M.T.) determined the standard our court system is required to use when determining whether an intoxicated individual is capable of giving consent to sexual contact under the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act of 2015 (SASPA).
This is an important development in New Jersey's law concerning sexual assault and an individual's ability to consent to sexual contact because the statute (SASPA) does not define "consent".
In C.R. v. M.T., 21-year-old Clara and her girlfriend Sylvia were out in a bar drinking one night and they invited Martin to join them at the bar. Martin declined, telling them that he had to get up for work in the morning. Unfortunately for Martin, a little later in the night, he received a text from the bartender, telling him that both girls were visibly drunk and asking him to pick them up. He then picked Clara and Sylvia up from the bar, drove both girls back to his house and put Sylvia in a bed in his guest bedroom with a bucket on the floor next to the bed. While he was putting Sylvia to bed, Clara went to Martin's fridge and had three more drinks.
According to Clara, after Martin put Sylvia to bed, Sylvia kept coming back out of the bedroom, wanting to party but Martin kept putting her back to bed . Clara then recalled finding out that a close friend's brother had cancer, causing her to go outside so she could call and console the friend. She said that her friend was mad at her for being so drunk on the phone, and that's when Sylvia and Martin came outside to bring her back into the house.
Clara testified that after Sylvia went back to bed, Martin put Clara over his shoulder and carried her into the garage. After this, Clara stated that she made several attempts to leave the garage, testifying that Martin "was intimidating;" she "was terrified;" and she told him "I don't want this. I don't want this. I don't want this."
On the other hand, Martin testified that after he put Sylvia to bed in the guest room, he went back to his bedroom to sleep and that's when Clara came into his room, asking for a blanket. Martin said that he gave her one off his bed, which Clara took to a couch in another room. He then got out of his bed and laid down on the couch with Clara.
According to Martin, "things started getting like a little hot and heavy," with them "mutually kissing." Martin then stated that to avoid Sylvia waking up and seeing them having sex, they went into the garage, where they engaged in consensual sexual contact. In his testimony, Martin acknowledged that Clara was intoxicated but asserted that she consented to the sexual contact.
2 days later, Clara went to the police alleging that Martin had sexually assaulted her. As a result, Clara sought protection under the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act of 2015 (SASPA).
Under the SASPA, for a court to find a violation warranting the issuance of an order of protection, the court is required to find the existence of the following 2 prongs:
- (1) the occurrence of one or more acts of nonconsensual sexual contact . . . against the alleged victim; and
- (2) the possibility of future risk to the safety or well-being of the alleged victim.
After conducting a hearing, the trial court found both parties' accounts of the evening "equally plausible.” Applying the "preponderance of the evidence" standard, the trial court therefore concluded that Clara’s extreme voluntary intoxication rendered her "temporarily incapable of understanding the nature of her conduct." This means that Clara did not (and could not) consent to the sexual contact occurring in the garage; and therefore, Clara was subjected to nonconsensual sexual contact within the meaning of SASPA's first prong.
As to the second prong of the test under SASPA, the trial court concluded that the purpose of SASPA is to protect victims of nonconsensual sexual contact. This motivated the trial court to find the second prong was met because Martin "may now harbor a grudge against Clara". As a result, the trial court ruled that both prongs of the test under SASPA have been met; and therefore, issued an order of protection in Clara's favor against Martin under SASPA.
Martin appealed the trial court's decision and the Appellate Division agreed with Martin. Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court decision, holding that the "prostration of faculties" standard is the proper standard to assess whether Clara was too drunk and therefore incapable of consenting to the sexual contact in question. Unlike the "preponderance of evidence" standard applied by the trial court, this "prostration of faculties" standard is used in criminal cases, where the alleged criminal's defense is that he/she was so drunk that he/she was not capable of purposefully engaging in the course of conduct in question.
The matter then went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which overruled the Appellate Division, holding that the appropriate standard to determine whether sexual activity is consensual under SASPA is not the "prostration of faculties standard" as the Appellate Division held. Rather, the proper standard must determine – from Clara’s perspective – whether she freely and affirmatively gave permission to Martin to engage in the sexual activity they engaged in.
In determining the standard to apply in these types of cases, the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that as a society, we cannot and should not go back in time to a period when it was the norm to shame, blame, and prosecute victims. As to the “prostration of faculties" standard, the New Jersey Supreme Court reasoned that it has only been applied to alleged criminals who only seek to evade culpability by showing that they could not have formed the requisite mental state for the offense charged. In its decision, our Supreme Court held that such a concept no longer has a place in our legal system when an alleged victim of sexual assault is requesting an order of protection from the court under SASPA.