North Carolina Statutory Rape Laws

Statutes governing North Carolina's age of consent, associated criminal charges, available defenses, and penalties for conviction.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated March 08, 2024

In North Carolina, engaging in sexual activities with a minor, even if the sex is consensual, can result in criminal charges for statutory rape.

What Is the Age of Consent in North Carolina?

Statutory rape laws are premised on the assumption that minors younger than a certain age 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 in North Carolina is generally 16. However, when certain relationships (such as teacher-student or parental authority) are involved, the age of consent increases.

North Carolina's Statutory Rape Laws and Penalties

Age-based sex crimes fall under North Carolina's statutory rape, statutory sexual offenses, and indecent liberties with children laws. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim, their age difference, the conduct that occurred, and the relationship between the parties.

Statutory Rape or Sexual Offense: Child Younger Than 13

The most serious statutory rape offenses involve sexual activities (vaginal, oral, and anal sex and object penetration) with a child younger than 13.

By an adult. An adult defendant (18 and older) commits a class B1 felony, which carries a minimum 25-year prison sentence and up to life imprisonment.

By a minor; first-degree crimes. Minors (age 12 and older) who are at least four years older than the child also commit a class B1 felony, with a penalty ranging anywhere from 15 years to life in prison. These offenses are referred to in law as first-degree statutory rape and first-degree statutory sexual offense.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.23, 14-27.24, 14-27.28, 14-27.29 (2024).)

Statutory Rape or Sexual Offense: Minor Age 15 or Younger

Engaging in sexual activities (vaginal, oral, or anal sex or object penetration) with a child age 15 or younger is also considered a class B1 felony if the defendant is at least 12 years old and six years older than the child. The offense is a class C felony when the defendant is between four and six years older than the child.

Class B1 felonies carry penalties of 15 years to life imprisonment. Class C felonies are punishable by 5 to 19 years in prison.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.25, 14-27.30 (2024).)

Indecent Liberties: Minor Younger Than 16

Taking indecent liberties with a child younger than 16 is also a crime. Indecent liberties include engaging in sexual behaviors for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire.

Defendant 16 or older. The offense is a class F felony when committed by a defendant age 16 or older who's at least five years older than the victim. Class F felonies carry one to five years of prison time.

Defendant under 16. The offense is considered a class 1 misdemeanor when committed by a defendant younger than 16 who's at least three years older than the victim. The maximum penalty for a class 1 misdemeanor is 120 days of jail time.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-202.1, 14-202.2 (2024).)

Sexual Activities or Indecent Liberties With a Student

Unless punishable by harsher penalties above, engaging in sexual activities or taking indecent liberties with a K-12 student carries class G or class I felony penalties. These penalties apply when a defendant is a teacher, school administrator, student teacher, school safety officer, coach, or other school personnel. A convicted defendant can face 4 months to 4 years' imprisonment.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.32, 14-202.4 (2024).)

Does North Carolina Have a Romeo-and-Juliet Law?

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.

North Carolina law contains a few Romeo-and-Juliet exemptions for consensual sex activities between minors who are at least 12 years old and no more than four years apart in age. For example, a 17-year-old who has consensual sex with a 15-year-old cannot be criminally prosecuted in North Carolina. Under the indecent liberties laws, the age difference must not be more than three to five years when one party is younger than 16.

Defenses to Statutory Rape Charges in North Carolina

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." North Carolina also has a marital exemption for some statutory rape crimes. The exemption allows consensual sex between a married minor and that minor's adult spouse, even though their ages would prohibit it if they were not married.

Consent is never a defense in statutory rape cases. North Carolina also doesn't allow mistake-of-age defenses—meaning defendants can't argue they believed the child was older to avoid a conviction. This is the case even if the child lied about their age.

Do Statutory Rape Offenses Require Sex Offender Registration in North Carolina?

All of the above felony offenses (save one) require sex offender registration for convictions. (The one exception is sexual activities with a minor age 15 or younger and the defendant is between 4 to 6 years older.) Registration lasts 10 to 30 years unless the person falls under lifetime registration requirements as a repeat offender. Failure to register is a crime.

Juveniles adjudicated delinquent for first-degree statutory rape or sexual offense must register if deemed a danger to the community by the court.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-208.6, 14-208.6B, 14-208.7, 14-208.26 (2024).)

Getting Legal Help

If you're facing charges or an investigation for statutory rape crimes, consider consulting a criminal defense attorney It's generally best to talk to a lawyer before answering any investigator or police questions.

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