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People v. Liberta

Citation. People v. Liberta, 90 A.D.2d 681, 455 N.Y.S.2d 882, 1982)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant was indicted for the rape and sodomy of his wife, with whom he was separated. The defendant was convicted and appealed, asserting that both statutes are unconstitutional.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The marital exemption and the female exemption to the rape and sodomy statutes are unconstitutional based upon equal protection analysis.


Defendant Mario Liberta and Denise Liberta married in 1978. Defendant began to beat Denise shortly after the birth of their son in October of that year. In 1980 Denise received a temporary order of protection from Family Court. The order required defendant to move out and remain away from the family home and Denise. It allowed defendant to visit his son once each weekend. On the weekend of March 21, 1981 defendant did not visit his son. On Tuesday of the following week he called to request visitation. Denise agreed so long as he picked up the son and her and took them to the motel he was staying at under the understanding that a friend of his would be with them at all times. The defendant and his friend picked the two up and drove to the hotel. Upon arrival the friend left. Shortly thereafter defendant attacked Denise, threatened to kill her, and forced her to perform fellatio and engage in sexual intercourse with him. He also forced Denise to tell their son to watc
h. He allowed them to leave after the incident, and Denise reported the incident the next day. Defendant moved to dismiss the following indictment asserting that he came within a marital exemption to both rape and sodomy. The People contended that because the couple were living apart pursuant to the temporary order of protection, they were not married for purposes of the statute. The trial court dismissed the indictment. The appellate court reversed and remanded, finding that the couple was not married for purposes of the statute. The defendant was convicted and appealed, asserting that both statutes are unconstitutional.


Is defendant correct in his assertion that the marital rape exemption in New York’s rape and sodomy statutes renders those statutes violative of the Equal Protection Clause?


Based on Equal Protection analysis, the law must be that any person who engages in sexual intercourse or deviate sexual intercourse with any other person by forcible compulsion is guilty of either rape or sodomy. The defendant’s conviction is affirmed.
Under New York law a male is guilty of rape when he engages in sexual intercourse with a female by forcible compulsion. Female is defined as any female person not married to the actor. Likewise, deviate sexual conduct in the New York sodomy statute is limited to sexual conduct between persons not married. Therefore, there is a marital exception for both forcible rape and forcible sodomy. This marital exemption has certain exemptions, in that a husband and wife are considered to be not married if at the time of the assault they are living apart pursuant to a court order or a separation agreement.

Regarding the marital exemption, the equal protection clause does not prohibit a State from making classifications, provided the statute does not arbitrarily burden a particular group of individuals. When a statute draws a distinction based upon marital status, the classification must be reasonable and must be based upon some ground of difference that rationally explains the different treatment. This Court finds no rational basis for distinguishing between marital and nonmarital rape.

Rationales for such a distinction are based either upon archaic notions about consent and property rights or are simply unable to withstand even the slightest scrutiny. An argument based upon supposed consent to such an act is irrational and absurd. A married woman has the same right to control her own body as does an unmarried woman. Other traditional justifications that a woman was the property of her husband have long been rejected by this State. More recent rationales include that the exemption protects against governmental intrusion into marital privacy and promotes reconciliation of the spouses, and thus, elimination would be disruptive to marriages. There is no rational relation between allowing a husband to forcibly rape his wife and these interests. The right of privacy protects consensual acts, not violent sexual assaults. In such cases it is doubtful there is anything left to reconcile. Another rationale advanced is that marital rape would be difficult to prove an
d could lead to fabricated complaints by vindictive wives. The criminal justice system is presumed to be capable of handling false complaints. The final argument is that marital rape is not as serious an offense as other rape and can be thus dealt with by other criminal statutes. There is no evidence to support such a claim. Amongst recent decisions by other jurisdictions, only one court has concluded that a rational basis exists for the marital exemption. This Court holds that the exemption lacks a rational basis, and therefore violates the equal protection clauses of both the Federal and State Constitutions.

Regarding the exemption under the rape statute for females, such an exemption must be substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental objective. The People first argue that the exemption is appropriate because only females may become pregnant. However, there is no evidence that preventing pregnancy is a primary purpose of the statute. Rather it is intended to prevent unwanted forcible and often violent sexual intrusion. The People also claim justification is found because a female rape victim faces the probability of medical, sociological, and psychological problems unique to her gender. This argument is no more convincing than it was when it was advanced in support of the discrimination in the statutory rape laws. Finally, the People suggest a gender-neutral law for forcible rape is unnecessary because it is either impossible physiologically or an extremely rare case where a woman could rape a man. This claim is based on an assertion that sexual interco
urse is only possible if the male is sexually aroused, and if he is aroused he is consenting. However, sexual intercourse occurs after penetration, however slight. Such penetration can occur without arousal. As to the infrequency argument, numerical disparity itself cannot make the gender discrimination constitutional. This Court holds that the law violates equal protection because it exempts females from criminal liability for forcible rape. It is now the law of this State that any person who engages in sexual intercourse or deviate sexual intercourse with any other person by forcible compulsion is guilty of either rape or sodomy. Because the statutes under which the defendant was convicted are not being stuck down, his conviction is affirmed.


The Court finds both the marital exemption and the female exemption to be unconstitutional under equal protection analysis, but the defendant’s conviction is upheld.

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