The Potluck

Minnesota Supreme Court clarifies privilege between sexual assault counselors and victims

By: - July 13, 2022 3:49 pm

Chambers of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Courtesy Minnesota Judicial Branch.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the confidentiality privilege between sexual assault counselors and victims seeking help cannot be lifted in a criminal proceeding without the victim’s consent. 

The ruling solidifies certain privacy protections for sexual assault victims by clarifying a 1982 Minnesota statute. It prohibits sexual assault counselors from disclosing “any opinion or information received from or about the victim” without the victim’s consent, according to the ruling, which was signed by Justice Natalie Hudson. Prior to the ruling, courts would sometimes make exceptions during criminal proceedings.

The case started with a criminal case in which a defendant asked the court to subpoena “notes, memoranda, records, reports, or any documentation” about a victim from a sexual assault counseling group. The defendant claimed the records from the Hope Coalition would potentially help his defense.

In December 2019, the district court granted the request, ordering the Hope Coalition to produce records for “in-camera” review. This allows a judge to privately view documents before deciding what information can be made public and used in court. 

The Hope Coalition appealed the decision, arguing that the statute created an “absolute privilege” between victims and counselors. The Supreme Court heard arguments in May of this year.

The Minnesota Supreme Court wrote in the decision that the state has a necessary interest to protect a victim’s privacy through the sexual-assault-counselor privilege, and that even a closed door viewing interferes with this. 

“Failure to ensure victim privacy and confidentiality could therefore result in a chilling effect on the willingness of victims to seek support,” the court wrote. “Even ‘in camera’ review of sexual-assault-counselor records intrudes upon the victim’s privacy and harms the vital confidentiality between the victim and counselor.” 

The interest of protecting this privilege, the court said, is not outweighed by the defendant’s interest in the privileged materials.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. A Tennessee-native, she recently graduated from Northwestern University.