Statutory Rape Laws and Charges

A person who has sex with someone under the "age of consent" can face a variety of criminal charges depending on the state.

Under statutory rape laws, a person who has sex with a person under a certain age known as “the age of consent” risks criminal charges and a jail or prison sentence, even if the younger person is a willing partner and neither partner is an adult.

This article is a general discussion of statutory rape laws.

What Is Statutory Rape? How Is Statutory Rape Defined?

Statutory rape is a crime that involves sexual contact with a person who is under an age specified by law, commonly referred to as the “age of consent.” Most states no longer refer to this crime as statutory rape. The legal term for the crime varies from state to state and includes sexual intercourse with a minor, sexual assault of a child, criminal sexual penetration of a minor or a child under a certain age, and sexual abuse of a minor.

Statutory rape is based on the notion that a person under a certain age cannot consent to sexual contact or activity because he or she lacks the maturity or judgement necessary to make a knowing choice about sexual activity. This is a strict liability or statutory crime because the underage person’s consent is irrelevant and the intentions of the defendant and what they believed about the age of the other person usually do not matter. Even when no force is involved and the sex appears consensual, the act of having sex with a person under the age of consent is a crime solely because of that person’s age.

From state to state, statutory rape crimes can range from misdemeanors to serious felonies, depending normally on the age of the victim and the age difference between the offender and victim. In some states, all statutory rape crimes are felonies. In other states, the crime of statutory rape might be a misdemeanor if the victim is close to the age of consent, but a first degree felony if the victim is younger than twelve or fourteen years old. Other factors also can affect the level of the criminal charge, such as whether a pregnancy resulted, the involvement of drugs or alcohol in the sexual activity, and whether the defendant has a history of prior sexual offenses.

If sexual contact with an under-age person involves force or coercion, or if the defendant was in a position of authority over the victim (a treating physician, mental health counselor, or school teacher, for instance), a state may prosecute the defendant under a separate law. These charges might be aggravated rape or a crime addressing sexual misconduct by a person in a position of authority.

Getting Legal Guidance
The information in this article provides an overview of the law relating to statutory rape. If you are trying to determine the legality of any kind of conduct, make sure to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. The law is complex and changes regularly.

Controversy Around Statutory Rape Laws

Statutory rape laws are meant to protect children and teenagers from predatory adults. The crime of statutory rape has been controversial because, historically, it has been applied primarily or exclusively to relationships where the female is under-age. In addition, strict statutory rape laws did and do not take into account relationships between young people who are close in age but where one (or both) persons is under the age of consent.

For example, if the age of consent in a state is 17, a boy who is 17 or 18 can be charged with statutory rape for having sexual contact or intercourse with his 16 year old girlfriend. If the age of consent in a state is 16 and a boy turns 16 on March 1 but his girlfriend turns 16 on March 10, the boy can be charged with statutory rape if he and his girlfriend begin having sex between March 1 and March 9, because the young woman is not yet 16. Similarly two young people under the age of consent each can be charged with statutory rape for having sex with one another if a state law has no exceptions for sex or sexual contact between two young people.

Exceptions to Statutory Rape Laws

Many states have enacted exceptions to statutory rape to address relationships between young people close in age and between young people who both are under the age of consent.

“Romeo and Juliet” Laws

Romeo and Juliet laws provide exceptions or defenses to statutory rape. Such laws may prohibit sexual contact of or intercourse with a person under a certain age only by an individual:

  • of a certain age (such as 18) or older, or
  • a certain number of years older than the alleged victim (such as “at least three years older”).

Under these statutory rape laws, the young age of the defendant or the small age difference between the accused and the other person can be a complete defense to a charge of statutory rape. In some states, however, these facts may only be “mitigating” factors that lower the level of the offense from perhaps a felony to a misdemeanor and/or reduce the possible penalties if the defendant is convicted.

Sex Between Young People of the Same Gender

A few states have “Romeo and Juliet” laws that expressly limit the exception to situations where the two people engaged in sexual activity are of the opposite sex. Under those laws, if the defendant and victim are of the same gender, the Romeo and Juliet exception provides no defense to the statutory rape charge.

Defenses to Statutory Rape

Defenses available to a person charged with a statutory rape crime depend upon the laws of the state in which the defendant is charged.

Consent

Although the victim’s consent itself is not necessarily a defense to statutory rape, it may be if the state in which the defendant is charged has a Romeo and Juliet exception or mitigation. The victim’s consent is an essential element that a defendant must show in order to take advantage of the Romeo and Juliet laws.

In states without Romeo and Juliet laws, the victim’s consent to statutory rape is no defense, because the point of statutory rape is that a person under a certain age cannot give a valid consent to sexual activity.

Reasonable Mistake of Victim’s Age

A few states allow a defendant to offer evidence that he or she honestly and reasonably believed the victim to be over the age of consent as a defense to a charge of statutory rape. Most states reject this mistake of age defense and treat the defendant’s mistake or ignorance about the victim’s age as irrelevant to guilt under statutory rape laws, even where the victim has intentionally misrepresented his or her age.

How Statutory Rape Is Punished

Punishment for a statutory rape offense varies according to whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony and the degree or seriousness of the felony classification. In some states, statutory rape is a less serious felony while in others it is classified as a more serious felony offense. Misdemeanor offenses normally are punishable by less than a year in jail. The punishment for a felony offense can vary from just over a year for a less serious felony to many years in prison. A sentence for statutory rape most likely will depend on the ages of the offender and the victim and the circumstances of the offense. If the offense occurred in a consenting, ongoing relationship between young people close in age, the judge may have the option and willingness to be more lenient. A court also can impose a fine on a person convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony offense. Fines usually are imposed in addition to jail or prison but a judge can impose only a fine as punishment for a misdemeanor.

Sex Offender Registration

A person convicted of statutory rape in certain states will be required to register as a sex offender. Such registration imposes strict limitations on where a sex offender may live, work, or go to school, and also requires the offender to check in with authorities on a regular basis. A registered sex offender’s name is placed on a national database, which is accessible to the public. In many respects, registering as a sex offender is the most onerous of any of the possible punishments, because it labels defendants for the rest of their lives.

State-by-State Statutory Rape Information

Get state-specific information regarding statutory rape.

See a Lawyer

A conviction of statutory rape can lead to repercussions that affect the offender’s life for many years. If you have been charged with statutory rape, or any sex crimes, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your state.

Updated April 10, 2018

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