Maryland law makes it illegal for a person to have consensual sexual activity with a minor younger than 16, with a few exceptions (see below). Anyone who engages in such unlawful conduct can face statutory rape charges.
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. Keep in mind that engaging in any sexual activity by force or without the other person's consent can result in more serious charges and penalties, no matter what the age of the other person.
In Maryland, the age of consent is 16. Anyone who engages in sexual activity with a child younger than 16 can face statutory-rape-related charges, as described below. For these age-based sexual offenses, it's immaterial whether the child consented to the activity or not. The child's age is the important fact, as it determines whether that person can legally consent to sexual activities.
Statutory rape is prosecuted under Maryland's laws on second-degree rape and third- and fourth-degree sexual offenses. Penalties depend on the age of the parties and the type of sexual conduct that occurred, as described below. Second or subsequent convictions for crimes involving sex with underage children can land a defendant in prison for life.
Second-degree rape occurs when a defendant engages in sexual intercourse or a sexual act (penetration or anal or oral sex) with a child younger than 14 and the defendant is at least four years older than the minor.
Rape in the second degree constitutes a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. If a person 18 or older commits this offense on a victim younger than 13 by using force or threat or the minor has a mental or physical impairment, they face 15 years to life in prison.
A person is guilty of third-degree sexual offense by:
A conviction for this felony offense carries up to ten years in prison.
A person commits the crime of fourth-degree sexual offense by engaging in sexual intercourse or a sexual act (penetration or oral or anal sex) with a child age 14 or 15 when the defendant is at least four years older than the child. This misdemeanor subjects a guilty defendant to up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
It is also an offense in Maryland for teachers and other school employees who are 21 or older to engage in any sexual activity with school students younger than 18 who are under their supervision. Teachers or school employees who engage in sexual activities with students can be sentenced to up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second convictions are punishable by up to three years in prison.
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 with others close to their own age. Maryland has a Romeo-and-Juliet law for consensual sexual contact between a minor 14 or older and someone who is less than four years older than the child. So, for example, the law doesn't criminalize consensual sexual contact between a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old.
Defendants charged with statutory rape crimes in Maryland have several potential defenses available to them. At the same time, the law prohibits or limits the use of certain defenses.
Defendants charged with a statutory rape crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "The alleged conduct did not occur."
Maryland has a marital exemption for statutory rape that allows consensual sex acts 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.
Maryland, 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.
Maryland's Sex Offender Registration laws require adult defendants and juveniles charged as adults who are convicted of any sex offense to register as sex offenders for 15 years, 25 years, or life, depending on the offense. These offenses include age-based rape of a child and sexual offense convictions.
Juveniles found delinquent of rape in the second degree must also register, but only if they were at least 13 years old when they committed the unlawful act.
Failure to comply with registration requirements can result in an additional criminal charge. First-time registration failures subject an offender to a misdemeanor conviction, which carries up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Second and subsequent failures can result in a felony conviction, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
If you are facing statutory-rape-related charges, 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 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.
(Md. Code, Crim. Law §§ 3-301, -304, -307, -308, -313, -318; Md. Code, Crim. Proc. §§ 11-701, -704, -721 (2022).)