In New Jersey, it is illegal for an adult (someone 18 or older) to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 16), even if the sex is consensual. Those who break the law have committed statutory rape.
Statutory rape laws are premised on the assumption that minors are incapable of giving informed consent to sexual activities. Their incapacity is written into the statute—hence the term, “statutory” rape. 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.
Though statutory rape does not require that the prosecutor prove an assault, it is still rape. Of course, rape that does involve force or an assault is illegal in New Jersey and prosecuted as forcible rape. Assaults of a sexual nature may also be charged under the state’s assault and battery laws and child enticement laws.
Statutory rape is prosecuted under New Jersey’s sexual assault laws. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim and the conduct that occurred, as described below.
Aggravated sexual assault includes sexual penetration (genital, oral, or anal sex or penetration, however slight, with a body part or object) between a minor who is younger than 13 and a defendant of any age. This offense is a first degree crime and is punishable by at least 15 years (and up to life) in prison, a fine of up to $200,000, or both. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:14-1, 2C:14-2, 2C:43-3 (2018).)
Sexual assault includes sexual contact (sexual touching, even over clothing in an arousing or sexually gratifying way) between a minor who is younger than 13 and a defendant who is at least four years older than the victim. It also includes sexual penetration between a minor who is 13, 14, or 15 and a defendant who is at least four years older than the victim. This offense is a second degree crime, punishable by between five and ten years in prison, a fine of up to $150,000, or both. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:14-1, 2C:14-2, 2C:43-3, 2C:43-6 (2018).)
Criminal sexual contact includes sexual contact between a minor who is 13, 14, or 15 and a defendant who is at least four years older than the minor. This offense is a fourth degree crime, punishable by up to 18 months in prison, a fine of as much as $10,000, or both. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:14-1, 2C:14-3, 2C:43-3, 2C:43-6 (2018).)
State law requires that, in addition to the applicable fines and prison time, people convicted of certain sexual crimes (including statutory rape) must register as sex offenders. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:7-2 (2018).)
Defendants charged with statutory rape have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as “Someone else committed this crime,” or “The alleged conduct did not occur.”
Named after Shakespeare’s young lovers, “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions are intended to prevent serious criminal charges against teenagers who engage in consensual sex with others close to their own age. New Jersey’s Romeo and Juliet exemption protects from prosecution certain minors who engage in consensual sex. The law applies to consensual sexual acts between a minor who is at least 13 and a defendant who is fewer than four years older. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:14-2, 2C:14-3 (2018).)
However, sexual contact with a child under 13 is always a serious offense. A conviction for engaging in sexual activity with a minor younger than 13 can result in significant prison time, large fines, or both.
Defendants accused of statutory rape often claim that they had no reason to know that their partner was underage. They may argue that the victim herself represented that she was older than she was, and that a reasonable person would have believed her. But as in most states, mistake of age is not a defense in New Jersey. (State v. Moore, 253 A.2d 579 (1969).)
If you are facing a statutory rape charge, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. The law can change at any time, and a lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to your case.
A lawyer can often negotiate with the prosecutor for a lesser charge or a reduction in penalties (such as, for example, probation instead of prison time) and will know how prosecutors and judges typically handle cases like yours.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or rape, contact Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for online help and local resources.
Updated September 28, 2018