North Dakota Statutory Rape Laws

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

By , Attorney (University of Houston Law Center)
Updated October 18, 2023

North Dakota law makes it illegal for a person to engage in consensual sexual activity with a minor younger than 18, with a few exceptions. Anyone who engages in such unlawful conduct can face statutory rape charges for gross sexual imposition, corruption of a minor, or sexual assault.

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 without the other person's consent can result in more serious charges and penalties, no matter what the age of the other person.

What Is the Age of Consent in North Dakota?

In North Dakota, the age of consent is 18. Anyone who engages in sexual activity with a child younger than 18 can face charges for statutory rape or a similar crime. 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.

North Dakota's Statutory Rape Laws and Penalties

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 (a "sexual act" or "sexual contact"). Some penalties only apply to adult defendants.

Sexual act means sexual contact between people consisting of oral, genital, or anal sex or penetration, however slight.

Sexual contact occurs when the offender, for purposes of sexual gratification or arousal, does any of the following:

  • touches the sexual or intimate parts of a minor, even over clothing, or
  • transfers semen to any part of the minor's body.

Second and subsequent convictions can result in harsher penalties.

Penalties for Gross Sexual Imposition With a Minor Younger Than 15

Gross sexual imposition includes an offender who engages in either sexual acts or sexual contact with a minor who is younger than 15.

Defendant older than 21. An offense involving a sexual act with a defendant who is at least 22 years old at the time of the offense constitutes a Class AA felony, which carries a penalty of five years to life in prison.

Defendant 21 or younger. Otherwise, the offense is a Class A felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Penalties for Corruption of a Minor Age 15 to 17

Corruption of a minor occurs when a person who is 18 or older engages in sexual acts with a minor who is 15 to 17 years old.

Defendant older than 21. This unlawful conduct is a Class C felony, when the defendant is 22 or older, and subjects a guilty person to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Defendant age 18 to 21. However, when the defendant is 18 to 21 years old, the illegal behavior constitutes a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to 360 days in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Penalties for Sexual Assault of a Minor Age 15 to 17

Sexual assault involves sexual contact between a minor who is 15 to 17 years old and a defendant who is 18 or older.

Defendant older than 21. Such unlawful conduct is a Class C felony, when the defendant is 22 or older, and subjects a guilty person to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Defendant age 18 to 21. However, when the defendant is 18 to 21 years old, the illegal behavior constitutes a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to 360 days in jail and a $3,000 fine.

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

Yes. 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. North Dakota's Romeo-and-Juliet exemption protects certain close-in-age minors from prosecution for engaging in consensual sex. No crime is committed when the defendant is less than three years older than a minor age 15 or older. The law also punishes defendants who are 21 or younger less harshly than older adults.

Defenses and Exceptions to a Statutory Rape Charge in North Dakota

Defendants charged with sex-related crimes of minors in North Dakota have several potential defenses available to them. At the same time, the law prohibits or limits the use of certain defenses.

Actual Innocence

Defendants charged with statutory rape or a similar crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "The alleged conduct did not occur."

Mistake of Age: Limited Defense

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 represented that they were older than they really were, and a reasonable person would have believed them.

Most states don't allow a mistake-of-age defense, but North Dakota does in some circumstances. 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.

Marriage Not a Defense

In many states, a person cannot be convicted of statutory rape of their spouse, but marriage provides no such defense in North Dakota. For more information on spousal rape and the historic marital rape exemption, see our article on marital rape laws.

Consent Not a Defense

While many offenders attempt to use consent as a defense, this does not constitute a sufficient defense in sex crime prosecutions involving a victim younger than 18 in North Dakota.

Sex Offender Registration for Statutory Rape in North Dakota

North Dakota's Sex Offender Registration Statute requires, in addition to the applicable fines and incarceration time, people convicted of certain sexual crimes (including statutory rape) to register as sex offenders. Depending on the level of the offense, registration lasts from 15 years to life. Failure to register constitutes a Class C felony and can result in additional penalties.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are facing charges relating to statutory rape, 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 help 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.

(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12.1-20-01, 12.1-20-02, 12.1-20-03, 12.1-20-05, 12.1-20-07, 12.1-32-01, 12.1-32-15 (2023).)

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