Statutory Rape Laws
Rape is nonconsensual sexual intercourse; it’s often committed through force, threats, or fear. One variation of rape, called statutory rape, makes it unlawful to have sex with a minor under the “age of consent,” which is usually between 16 and 18, even if the minor consents to the sex. For purposes of rape laws, sexual intercourse occurs at the moment of sexual penetration, however slight, by the male sexual organ. However, some states have expanded the definition of rape to include nonconsensual penetration by other body parts or objects; rape statutes may also prohibit unwanted fellatio, cunnilingus, and anal intercourse. Perhaps the best known form of rape is forcible rape, which typically involves force or threats of violence to accomplish sexual intercourse. In most states, however, rape can also occur in a number of other ways.
For example, rape generally also consists of sexual intercourse where the rapist:
• prevents a victim from consenting by plying him or her with alcohol or drugs
• poses as a public official and threatens to arrest or deport the victim unless he or she agrees to sex, or
• acts with the knowledge that the victim has a disorder or disability that prevents him or her from legally consenting to sex.
• Degrees of rape: Some states divide rape into degrees. First degree rape may consist of rape accompanied by severe physical injuries; it carries a harsher punishment than second degree rape, which may involve no physical injuries beyond the rape itself.
• Rape between married partners: In most states, if sexual intercourse is nonconsensual, the fact that the parties are married is irrelevant. Of course, the fact that an alleged rapist is the victim’s husband may depending on the facts make it more difficult to establish that rape rather than consensual intercourse took place.
Statutory rape refers to sexual relations involving someone below the “age of consent.” People who are underage cannot legally consent to having sex, so any form of sexual activity with them violates the law. This is true even in situations where they signal their agreement. While the crime is popularly called statutory rape, many states don’t use that term officially but instead classify it as sexual assault, corruption of a minor, or carnal knowledge of a child. Most laws on this subject are state rather than federal ones. Statutory rape is a crime that involves sexual contact with a person who is under an age specified by law, commonly referred to as the “age of consent.” Most states no longer refer to this crime as statutory rape.
The legal term for the crime varies from state to state and includes sexual intercourse with a minor, sexual assault of a child, criminal sexual penetration of a minor or a child under a certain age, and sexual abuse of a minor. Statutory rape is based on the notion that a person under a certain age cannot consent to sexual contact or activity because he or she lacks the maturity or judgement necessary to make a knowing choice about sexual activity. This is a strict liability or statutory crime because the underage person’s consent is irrelevant and the intentions of the defendant and what they believed about the age of the other person usually do not matter. Even when no force is involved and the sex appears consensual, the act of having sex with a person under the age of consent is a crime solely because of that person’s age. From state to state, statutory rape crimes can range from misdemeanors to serious felonies, depending normally on the age of the victim and the age difference between the offender and victim. In some states, all statutory rape crimes are felonies. In other states, the crime of statutory rape might be a misdemeanor if the victim is close to the age of consent, but a first degree felony if the victim is younger than twelve or fourteen years old. Other factors also can affect the level of the criminal charge, such as whether a pregnancy resulted, the involvement of drugs or alcohol in the sexual activity, and whether the defendant has a history of prior sexual offenses. If sexual contact with an under-age person involves force or coercion, or if the defendant was in a position of authority over the victim (a treating physician, mental health counselor, or school teacher, for instance), a state may prosecute the defendant under a separate law. These charges might be aggravated rape or a crime addressing sexual misconduct by a person in a position of authority. Usually people think of the word “rape” as meaning a forcible sexual encounter. However, with statutory rape, no force is required to be in violation of the law. The crime typically involves an underage participant who willingly engages in sexual relations. However, because the individual is too young to legally consent to sex, it’s a crime whether or not force is involved. If the act involves force or coercion, many states prosecute the offender on charges such as child molestation or aggravated rape.
Age of Consent
The age at which a person can legally consent to have sex varies from state to state. In most places it is 16 years old, but some set it at 17 or 18. In the eyes of the law, people below this age are simply too immature to make a decision that could have consequences such as a pregnancy. Society protects them by making it a criminal offense to have sex with them. Note that “age of consent” is a different legal concept from “age of majority,” which refers to becoming an adult for general purposes, such as being able to enter into contracts. Historically, statutory rape was a “strict liability” offense, meaning that it didn’t matter whether the actor knew that the other person was too young to consent to sex. Some states now permit a defense of honest mistake.
Factors Affecting the Punishment
The usual punishment for statutory rape is imprisonment, sometimes along with a hefty fine and an order to register as a sex offender. A number of factors affect the severity of the sentence in a particular case. One is the age of the victim: the younger, the more serious the crime. Other factors that can impact a sentence include:
• the age difference between the two people;
• whether the actor and victim are members of the same household;
• whether the actor is a teacher or other employee at the victim’s school; and
• the actor’s past sex offenses, if any.
To address potential statutory rape situations where two people are close in age, a number of states have enacted what are sometimes called “Romeo and Juliet laws.” These laws carve out a different set of rules where the offender is only slightly older than the minor. States impose a duty on certain classes of professionals to report any suspicion of child abuse, which can include statutory rape. Generally, they types of professionals designated as mandatory reporters are those with access to children (such as teachers or medical professional) or in service positions (such as public employees and clergy). Mandatory reporting requirements are outlined in state laws, so the people designated as mandatory reporters, and the circumstances in which they must report suspected child abuse, will vary from state to state.
Statutory Rape Laws and Charges
A person who has sex with someone under the “age of consent” can face a variety of criminal charges depending on the state. Under statutory rape laws, a person who has sex with a person under a certain age known as “the age of consent” risks criminal charges and a jail or prison sentence, even if the younger person is a willing partner and neither partner is an adult.
Controversy Around Statutory Rape Laws
Statutory rape laws are meant to protect children and teenagers from predatory adults. The crime of statutory rape has been controversial because, historically, it has been applied primarily or exclusively to relationships where the female is under-age. In addition, strict statutory rape laws did and do not take into account relationships between young people who are close in age but where one (or both) persons is under the age of consent.
“Romeo and Juliet” Laws
Romeo and Juliet laws provide exceptions or defenses to statutory rape. Such laws may prohibit sexual contact of or intercourse with a person under a certain age only by an individual:
• of a certain age (such as 18) or older, or
• a certain number of years older than the alleged victim (such as “at least three years older”).
Under these statutory rape laws, the young age of the defendant or the small age difference between the accused and the other person can be a complete defense to a charge of statutory rape. In some states, however, these facts may only be “mitigating” factors that lower the level of the offense from perhaps a felony to a misdemeanor and/or reduce the possible penalties if the defendant is convicted.
Defenses to Statutory Rape
Defenses available to a person charged with a statutory rape crime depend upon the laws of the state in which the defendant is charged. Although the victim’s consent itself is not necessarily a defense to statutory rape, it may be if the state in which the defendant is charged has a Romeo and Juliet exception or mitigation. The victim’s consent is an essential element that a defendant must show in order to take advantage of the Romeo and Juliet laws.In states without Romeo and Juliet laws, the victim’s consent to statutory rape is no defense, because the point of statutory rape is that a person under a certain age cannot give a valid consent to sexual activity.
Reasonable Mistake of Victim’s Age
A few states allow a defendant to offer evidence that he or she honestly and reasonably believed the victim to be over the age of consent as a defense to a charge of statutory rape. Most states reject this mistake of age defense and treat the defendant’s mistake or ignorance about the victim’s age as irrelevant to guilt under statutory rape laws, even where the victim has intentionally misrepresented his or her age. Punishment for a statutory rape offense varies according to whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony and the degree or seriousness of the felony classification. In some states, statutory rape is a less serious felony while in others it is classified as a more serious felony offense. Misdemeanor offenses normally are punishable by less than a year in jail. The punishment for a felony offense can vary from just over a year for a less serious felony to many years in prison. A sentence for statutory rape most likely will depend on the ages of the offender and the victim and the circumstances of the offense. If the offense occurred in a consenting, ongoing relationship between young people close in age, the judge may have the option and willingness to be more lenient. A court also can impose a fine on a person convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony offense. Fines usually are imposed in addition to jail or prison but a judge can impose only a fine as punishment for a misdemeanor.
Sex Offender Registration
A person convicted of statutory rape in certain states will be required to register as a sex offender. Such registration imposes strict limitations on where a sex offender may live, work, or go to school, and also requires the offender to check in with authorities on a regular basis. A registered sex offender’s name is placed on a national database, which is accessible to the public. In many respects, registering as a sex offender is the most onerous of any of the possible punishments, because it labels defendants for the rest of their lives. Children seem to grow up faster today than ever before. As a result, many teens feel the pressure to enter into sexual relationships with their peers at younger and younger ages. This has created an interesting dilemma in the law regarding whether one minor can be charged with statutory rape for having a sexual relationship with another minor. Many states have had to deal with the realities of a changing world via their legislation on the topic of statutory rape. Thus, some states have reduced the age of consent to less than the age of majority (often 16 to consent to sex, versus 18 to reach the age of majority). Some of these states also impose penalties if someone who is between 16 and 18 (and thus, able to consent to sex) has sex with a minor under the age of 16 (who is still unable to consent), though the penalty is typically reduced in light of the ages of the parties involved. Other states have created “brackets,” so that persons who are within a certain number of years of one another can engage in sexual relations without violating the law. In these states, the brackets slide based on the age of the minor. Thus, a 15 year old may only be able to have a relationship with someone who is 18, while a 17 year old may be able to date someone who is 20. The range of age differences varies by state, and in some states the brackets do not entirely decriminalize the act, merely reduce the sentence. The bracket concept developed to prevent situations where existing partners could find themselves suddenly engaging in criminal activity when one had a birthday ahead of the other, and to decriminalize conduct (or at least, reduce the penalty for conduct) likely to occur among groups of young people of comparable ages.
Get an Attorney
If you face criminal charges for rape or any other offense, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. An experienced attorney can fully explain the applicable law and analyze your case. Beyond advice and analysis, a knowledgeable lawyer is uniquely equipped to protect your interests.
Statutory Rape Defense Lawyer
When you have been charged with statutory rape in Utah, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506