Washington law makes it illegal for a person to have consensual sexual intercourse or contact with a minor younger than 16, subject to a few exceptions (see below). Anyone who engages in such unlawful conduct can face charges for statutory rape or child molestation.
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 the age of the other person.
In Washington, the age of consent is 16. Anyone who engages in sexual activity with a child younger than 16 can face charges of child 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.
While not covered in this article, the age of consent moves up to 18 if the defendant has a supervisory position over the minor (such as an employer or teacher) or a significant relationship with the minor (such as a coach, therapist, or clergyperson). These offenses fall under the crime of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Statutory rape is prosecuted under Washington's child rape (sexual intercourse) and child molestation (sexual contact) laws. Penalties depend on the age of the parties and the type of sexual conduct that occurred, as described below.
Sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse means sexual penetration, however slight, with an object or body part and includes anal, oral, and vaginal sex.
Sexual contact. Sexual contact means sexual touching, even over clothing, without penetration.
Washington law provides for varying degrees of child rape based on the ages of the parties involved.
First-degree rape of a child occurs when there is consensual sexual intercourse between a minor who is younger than 12 and a defendant who is at least two years older than the victim. Rape of a child in the first degree constitutes a class A felony, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine.
A person is guilty of second-degree rape of a child when consensual sexual intercourse happens between a 12- or 13-year-old minor and a defendant who is at least three years older than the victim. Such an offense is also a class A felony, punishable by up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Third-degree child rape occurs when there is consensual sexual intercourse between a minor who is 14 or 15 and a defendant who is at least four years older than the victim. This class C felony subjects a guilty defendant to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Like child rape offenses, the penalties for child molestation depend on the ages of the parties involved.
First-degree child molestation occurs when there is consensual sexual contact between a minor who is younger than 12 and a defendant who is at least three years older than the victim. Child molestation in the first degree constitutes a class A felony, which carries up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine.
A person is guilty of second-degree child molestation when consensual sexual contact happens between a 12- or 13-year-old minor and a defendant who is at least three years older than the victim. Such an offense is a class B felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Third-degree child molestation occurs when there is consensual sexual contact between a minor who is 14 or 15 and a defendant who is at least four years older than the victim. This class C felony subjects a guilty defendant to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
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. Washington is one of these states.
Its statutory rape laws don't make it a crime to engage in consensual sexual conduct when the parties are within the following age ranges:
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 Washington have several potential defenses available to them.
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."
Unlike most states, Washington does recognize a mistake-of-age defense for sex crimes involving underage victims in certain circumstances. It is a defense when the defendant reasonably believed the victim was older because of the victim's own declaration of their age. The minor must have made some kind of explicit assertion regarding their age. This defense does not exist when the defendant makes an inference about the child's age based on their behavior, demeanor, or appearance.
Washington's Sex Offender Registration laws require defendants convicted of any sex offense to register as a sex offender for 10 years, 15 years, or life, depending on the offense. These offenses include age-based rape of a child and child molestation convictions.
Failure to comply with registration requirements can result in an additional criminal charge. The severity of that penalty depends on the offense class of the underlying sex charge which required registration. Washington provides both adult and juvenile sex offenders the opportunity to petition for early release from the sex offender requirement, depending on the circumstances.
Statutes of limitations provide time limits for government prosecutors to file charges in a criminal case. Filing charges after the time limit expires means the defendant can ask the court to dismiss the case. While the general statute of limitations for felonies in Washington is three years, sex crimes are an exception. Most sex crimes involving minors—including rape of a child and child molestation—do not have a statute of limitations. This means the prosecutor can file charges against a suspect long after the crime occurred.
If you are facing a charge of statutory rape or a similar crime, 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.
(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.04.080; 9A.20.21; 9A.44.010, -.030, -.073, -.076, -.079, -.083, -.086, -.089, -.128, -.130, -.132; 26.04.010 (2022).)