In North Dakota, it is illegal for an adult (someone 18 or older) to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 18), 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 North Dakota and prosecuted as forcible rape. Assaults of a sexual nature may also be charged under the state’s assault and battery or child enticement laws.
Statutory rape is prosecuted under North Dakota’s rape and sex crime laws. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim and the conduct that occurred, as described below.
Gross sexual imposition includes sexual acts (oral, genital, or anal sex or penetration, however slight) or sexual contact (touching, even over clothing) with a minor who is younger than 15. An offense involving a sexual act and a defendant who is at least 22 years old at the time of the offense is a class AA felony, which is punishable by at least five years (and up to life) in prison. Otherwise, the offense is a class A felony and is punishable by a fine of up to $20,000, up to 20 years in prison, or both. (N.D. Cent. Code Ann. §§ 12.1-20-02, 12.1-20-03, 12.1-32-01 (2018).)
Corruption of a minor includes sexual acts between a minor who is 15, 16, or 17 and a defendant who is at least 18 years old. This offense is a class A misdemeanor if the defendant was younger than 22 at the time of the crime. Penalties include a fine of up to $3,000, up to one year in jail, or both. If the defendant was 22 or older, it is a class C felony, which is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (N.D. Cent. Code Ann. §§ 12.1-20-02, 12.1-20-05, 12.1-32-01 (2018).)
Sexual assault includes sexual contact between a minor who is 15, 16, or 17, and a defendant who is 18 or older. This offense is a class A misdemeanor if the defendant was younger than 22 at the time of the crime. Penalties include a fine of up to $3,000, up to one year in jail, or both. If the defendant was 22 or older, it is a class C felony, which is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (N.D. Cent. Code Ann. §§ 12.1-20-02, 12.1-20-07, 12.1-32-01 (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.D. Cent. Code Ann. § 12.1-32-15 (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. North Dakota’s Romeo and Juliet exemption protects from prosecution certain teenagers who engage in consensual sex. The law applies to consensual sexual acts between a minor who is at least 15 years old and a defendant who is fewer than three years older than the younger minor. (N.D. Cent. Code Ann. § 12.1-20-01 (2018).)
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. In North Dakota, unlike in most states, mistake of age can be a defense to a statutory rape charge in certain cases. If the minor is 15 or older, it can be a defense that the defendant reasonably believed the child to be an adult. However, if the child is 14 or younger, ignorance or mistake of the child’s age is not a defense. (N.D. Cent. Code Ann. § 12.1-20-01 (2018).)
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 25, 2018