The debate on the floor of the Minnesota House surfaced near midnight, when most of the curious and the connected had gone home.
It followed a long and contentious argument over lowering the minimum wage for restaurant servers. Members were no doubt tired, and the issue at hand, many acknowledged, was something that they found uncomfortable to discuss aloud.
Words such as “body fluids” and “semen,” and the discussion of a horrible sexual violation of a woman who drank semen put into her coffee by a co-worker.
What followed was a strange debate, even by legislative standards. A couple of legislators cracked jokes, made odd comparisons to putting gum under a dinner plate and questioned whether a new law would punish mischievous students who spit in another student’s soup. At times, there was laughter.
Little did many of the legislators know, the victim of the assault was sitting in the gallery.
The idea for a bill was brought to Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center. The impetus was a crime brought to court back in September. A Blaine man, John R. Lind, 34, admitted to police that he ejaculated several times into a co-worker’s coffee and onto her desk. He was, he said, trying to get her attention. He got it when the woman caught him near her desk, and notified police.
Lind was initially charged with criminal sexual conduct, but a judge found that the act he committed was not covered under state sex offender laws, and the case was dismissed. Lind was later charged with indecent exposure, a misdemeanor.
Hilstrom is seeking to change the act to a felony for adults who put bodily fluids in food or drink, knowing someone else may consume it. There would also have to be intent to arouse or gratify sexual desire, or involve a child, to be considered a felony sexual offense.
During Monday’s debate, Rep. John Lesch, a prosecutor, offered some reasonable questions. “It appears to be legislation designed out of a specific incident, an incident that elicits disgust from any person who hears about it,” he said. “But in crafting legislation this way, I think it falls victim to the folly of so many bills, where policy is written as a reaction to an incident that garnered a lot of press controversy, and that folly is a lot of ill-considered construction of law.”
While prompted by the Lind case, this is not a bill targeted to one strange incident, Hilstrom said.
“This isn’t the one-time thing,” Hilstrom said in an interview. She pointed to the movie “North Country,” which depicted the same type of behavior in the mines of the Iron Range.
I know. I covered the lawsuit and read thousands of pages of disgusting testimony of how some men sexually abused some female co-workers. I have also worked in a couple of factories, and have witnessed similar “pranks” toward both men and women.
Hilstrom also pointed to a California teacher who baked cookies for his students that included his body fluids, which launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
“This is an indication that, clearly, Minnesota law needs to be tightened up,” Hilstrom said.
The night took a strange turn when Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, began with an odd anecdote about putting gum under his plates and putting them into the dishwasher. Then he and others questioned whether we should actually make it a felony to spit in people’s food. Erhardt mentioned a commercial for the television show “Friends,” in which one of the characters licks her coffee cup so no one would use it. He actually pretended to lick a coffee cup to illustrate.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, then rose to ask: “Suppose a child spits into his own soup, how is that covered under your bill?”
Assured that spitting in your own soup would not be a felony, Kahn asked if a kid who tried to spit in his own soup, but spit in someone else’s soup instead, would face a felony.
Hilstrom, who remained impressively calm through the questioning, said the bill would not make that a felony.
”If saliva is the part that gives the body heartburn, I’m happy to delete saliva from the bill,” Hilstrom said. “If members are OK with people spitting in their food and eating it, we can amend the bill.”
Hilstrom should have performed an epic microphone drop at this point and exited.
Instead, the bill was referred back to committee to decide whether spitting into someone’s food should be a felony, or simply bad manners, and whether putting semen in someone’s coffee would make someone a sex offender (seems obvious to me). The Senate Friday passed a bill making the acts of putting bodily fluids in food a gross misdemeanor. The Legislature will ultimately decide how far the law should go.
I asked Hilstrom what she thought of the “debate.”
“Sometimes nothing good happens late at night,” said Hilstrom, who acknowledged colleagues were tired but added “that is not an excuse. I was disappointed.”
Maybe “disappointed” is the Minnesota way of saying “disturbed.”
Hilstrom was being magnanimous, and so was the person whose abuse launched the bill, Pat Maahs, who watched the discussion from the gallery and heard the snickering.
“To me, it kind of hurt to see people act like this,” said Maahs. “It’s likely because they don’t know what something like this can do to a person. I still don’t know what Lind’s medical history is. A lot of diseases can stay with you for life.”
So, Maahs will have to get tested regularly to make sure she didn’t contract a disease, such as AIDS or hepatitis C.
“At first I was very, very, very embarrassed and tried to hide it,” said Maahs. She courageously came forward so other women wouldn’t have to suffer.
“It’s really sad when we have to legislate morality,” Maahs said.
It may be hard to see an upside to a story like this, but Maahs volunteered one.
“How about a little free advertising for Beisswenger’s Hardware?” Maahs asked.
She has worked at the New Brighton store for 26 years, and they have arranged her schedule so she could try to change state law.
“Everybody there, from the owners to my co-workers, have been wonderful,” Maahs said. “Just wonderful.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin