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People v. Liberta

Citation. 64 N.Y.2d 152, 474 N.E.2d 567, 485 N.Y.S.2d 207, 1984 N.Y. 4916.
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Brief Fact Summary.

After abusing her, Defendant’s wife obtained an order of protection against him which specified he had to stay away from her and move out of the home. The lower court order provided he could see his son once a week. Defendant then raped his wife after luring her to his motel room. Defendant was convicted of rape and the conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The marital exemption included in the rape statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of both the federal (Fourteenth Amendment) and state constitutions because it lacks a rational basis and is unconstitutionally underinclusive.


Defendant Mario Liberta and victim Denise Liberta were married in 1978. Shortly after the birth of their son, Defendant began beating his wife. In 1980, Denise obtained an order of protection from the Defendant, whereby Defendant had to move out of the family home and stay away from Denise. The order allowed Defendant to visit his son once each weekend. In March of 1981, Defendant called Denise and asked her if he could visit their son. Denise allowed Defendant to pick up both her and their son and take them back to his motel after being assured that a friend of his would be with them at all times. Once they arrived, the friend left and Defendant forced Denise to have sexual intercourse with him. He also forced his son to watch the non-consensual intercourse. Thereafter, Denise filed a complaint against Defendant and he was eventually convicted of rape. The conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division. Section 130.35 of the Penal Code provides that “a male is guilty of ra
pe when he engages in sexual intercourse with a female by forcible compulsion.” “Female” is defined as “any female person who is not married to the actor.” Because of this language, there is a “marital exemption” for forcible rape in the statute. The marital exemption applied as long as the marriage still legally existed. In 1978, the legislature expanded the definition of “not married” to include those cases where the husband and wife were living apart pursuant to either a court order, decree, judgment, or written agreement of separation. The order of protection in this case falls within the definition of court order. In accordance, the Defendant was found to have been statutorily not married to Denise at the time of the rape.


Does the marital exemption violate the Equal Protection Clause of both the federal (Fourteenth Amendment) and state Constitutions?


Yes. Conviction affirmed.
The marital exemption is struck down, but the statute under which the Defendant was convicted is upheld and Defendant’s conviction is affirmed.

In order for the statute to be constitutional under the equal protection analysis, the statute must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. This is the rational basis test.

Defendant claims that the statute violates equal protection because it burdens him and not others similarly situated.

The Court found that there is no rational basis for distinguishing between marital and non-marital rape. The various rationales asserted in defense to the martial exemption are based upon old notions of consent and property rights incident to marriage. Just as a husband cannot invoke a right of marital privacy to escape liability for beating his wife, he cannot justifiably rape his wife under the premise of a right to privacy.

The marital exemption lacks a rational basis and is unconstitutionally under-inclusive. In accordance, the Court strikes down the marital exemption. It is now the law of the state that a person who engages in sexual intercourse by forcible compulsion is guilty of rape in the first degree. Because the statute under which the Defendant was found guilty is not being struck down, his conviction is affirmed.


In striking down the marital exemption, the Court reasoned that a marriage license should not be viewed as a license for a husband to forcibly rape his wife. Furthermore, the Court found that nowhere in modern society is a woman regarded as chattel.

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