Colorado law makes it illegal for a person to have consensual sex with a minor younger than 17, with a few exceptions (see below). Those who break the law have committed what's often referred to as "statutory rape."
Statutory rape laws are premised on the assumption that minors are incapable of giving informed consent to sexual activities. The age of consent can vary among states, and some states differentiate between consensual sex between minors who are close in age (for example, two teenagers of the same age), as opposed to sex between a minor and a much older adult.
While Colorado doesn't use the term statutory rape, the act of having sex with someone under the age of consent is still a crime. It falls under the crime of sexual assault.
In Colorado, the age of consent is 17. Anyone who engages in sexual activity with a child younger than 17 can face charges for sexual assault or a similar crime. For these unlawful sexual offenses, it's immaterial whether the child consents to the activity. The child's age is the important fact, as it determines whether that person can legally consent to sexual activities.
Prosecutors charge statutory rape under Colorado's sexual assault laws, and penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim, as described below.
A person commits statutory rape—called sexual assault—by having sex with a minor under the age of 17. More specifically, the crime of sexual assault occurs when there is sexual intrusion or penetration (vaginal intercourse, oral or anal sex, or penetration with an object or body part, however slight) between:
Statutory rape is a felony in Colorado. The penalties vary depending on the age of the offender and the victim.
Victim younger than 15; defendant older by 4 years or more. Statutory rape constitutes a class 4 felony if the victim is younger than 15, and the defendant is at least four years older than the victim. For instance, a 19-year-old who has consensual sex with a 14-year-old violates this law, as does a 16-year-old who has sexual relations with a 12-year-old. Such an offense carries a sentence of two to six years in prison and a $2,000 to $500,000 fine.
Victim age 15 or 16; defendant older by 10 years or more. If the victim is 15 or 16, and the defendant is at least 10 years older than the victim, the offense qualifies as a class 6 felony. A guilty defendant faces one year to 18 months in prison and a $1,000 to $100,000 fine.
Colorado also penalizes having consensual sexual contact with a child younger than a certain age. Sexual contact involves touching of another's intimate parts (under or over clothing) done for the purposes of sexual arousal. There are two crimes that apply to sexual contact involving underage individuals.
Victim under 14. When the minor is 14 or younger and the defendant is at least four years older, the offense constitutes a class 4 felony. The penalty becomes a class 3 felony if the defendant engages in the conduct two or more times with the same victim (referred to as a pattern of sexual abuse).
Defendant in a position of trust. A defendant in a position of trust (such as a teacher) in relation to a minor under 18 commits a class 3 or 4 felony. Class 3 felony penalties apply when the offender commits the offense as part of a pattern of sexual abuse or the minor is younger than 15. The crime is a class 4 felony if the victim is 15, 16, or 17, and the crime is not part of a pattern of sexual abuse.
A class 3 felony carries a sentence of four to 12 years in prison and a $3,000 to $750,000 fine. Defendants guilty of a class 4 felony face two to six years in prison and a $2,000 to $500,000 fine.
In many states, "Romeo-and-Juliet" exceptions—named for Shakespeare's teenage lovers—protect young people from criminal charges for engaging in consensual sexual conduct (penetration or touching) with others close to their own age.
Colorado law provides a Romeo-and-Juliet exception, often referred to as a close-in-age exception, for consensual sex between a minor who is younger than 15 and an offender who is less than four years older than the minor. An exception also applies in cases where the minor is 15 or 16, and the other party is less than 10 years older than the minor. So, for example, the law doesn't criminalize consensual sex between a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old or between a 14-year-old and 17-year-old.
Colorado's Sex Offender Registration Act requires adult defendants convicted of felony sexual assaults, including statutory rape offenses, to register as sex offenders for life. Other sex-related crimes may only require registration for 10 or 20 years, depending on the severity level of the crime, as well as the offender's criminal background. Colorado law caps the amount of time a person who committed a sex offense as a juvenile can remain on the registry to seven years or when they turn 25, whichever happens later.
Failure to comply with registration requirements results in an additional felony charge. A first-offense failure constitutes a class 6 felony, which carries one to one and a half years in prison and a $1,000 to $100,000 fine. Second and subsequent failures are class 5 felonies, punishable by one to three years in prison and a $1,000 to $100,000 fine.
Defendants charged with statutory rape crimes in Colorado have several potential defenses available to them. At the same time, the law prohibits or limits the use of certain defenses.
Defendants charged with statutory rape or a similar crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "The alleged conduct did not occur."
Colorado has a marital exemption for statutory rape that allows consensual sex between a married minor and their adult spouse even though their ages would prohibit it if they were not married. The marital defense is a remnant of the marital rape exemption.
Colorado, like many states, doesn't recognize a mistake-of-age defense for sex crimes involving underage victims, even if the defendant's belief was reasonable or the child lied about their age or looked older.
If you are facing a charge for statutory rape or a similar crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to the unique circumstances of your case. A knowledgeable attorney can also advise you on how the law will apply to your set of facts.
(Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 16-22-102, -103; 18-1.3-401, -406; 18-3-401, -402, -405, -409 (2022).)