The Romeo and Juliet law was designed to lessen the penalties associated with a statutory rape charge. These laws apply to legal cases where a teenager engages involuntary sexual acts with someone older than they are. Interpretations of such laws vary between the states that have them.
Regardless of interpretation, Romeo and Juliet laws do not exist to make sexual activity involving teenagers legal. They exist to prevent the potential offender from being labeled as a sex offender and having to enroll in a registry. The Romeo and Juliet law only applies to cases where there is a minor age difference between the two parties involved. The average difference in age varies depending on the age of consent in states with Romeo and Juliet laws.
Intertwined with statutory rape laws, many states offer a Romeo and Juliet law, but several do not. In states where it is available, it may go by another name. Regardless of how it is labeled, the law functions primarily to allow:
- The possibility of a statutory rape charge to be reduced
- A person charged with statutory rape to avoid mandatory registration as a sex offender
- Statutory rape charges to possibly be dropped
- Statutory rape charges to be expunged (removed) at a later date
People convicted of statutory rape in a state where a Romeo and Juliet law does not exist may be subject to:
- A felony record
- Community service
- Supervised probation
- Lifelong registry as a sex offender
Additionally, parties successful in a civil suit involving statutory rape may be awarded other court damages.
Too Young to Consent, But…
Age of consent is the age when a person can agree to voluntary sex acts without the threat of criminal charges. Legally, the age of consent typically ranges from 16 to 18 years old depending on the state where the minor lives. Some teenagers under the age of consent engage in voluntary sexual acts, but doing so is unlawful. Young couples have found themselves at the center of statutory rape cases even when there is a minor difference in age.
There is a myriad of reasons why voluntary relationships may result in criminal charges. For example, statutory rape charges may be filed as the result of a teen’s parent disagreeing with a voluntary sexual relationship and deciding to press charges against the older individual. The Romeo and Juliet law exists so the court can consider the nuances of some statutory rape cases.
Life As a Sex Offender
Despite participating in sexual relations both parties agreed to, such acts can lead to the oldest participant being charged with a crime and arrested. If the older partner is convicted of statutory rape, she or he may be declared a sex offender. Once identified as a sex offender, a person is usually required to enroll in a registry viewable by the public. As a registered sex offender, opportunities for housing, employment, and other benefits may be withheld. A convicted person may spend time on a registry for several years while some are required to appear for life.
Registries being made available to the public ensure that citizens are aware of sex offenders living or working in their neighborhoods. Intended for the public’s safety and awareness, sex offenders must provide registries the addresses for their residence, schooling, and workplace in every city they live in or frequent. Registered sex offenders are usually prohibited from being within a certain vicinity of schools, parks, and other family-oriented public spaces. These prohibitions may severely restrict where registered individuals may live or frequent.
A Romeo and Juliet law does not legalize sexual activity involving a teenager, but the law can help keep a person from becoming a convicted sex offender. In some cases, the law may keep offenders off of a registry even after being found guilty. The application of a Romeo and Juliet law depends on the particular circumstances of each case with the outcome depending largely on a judge’s discretion.
Mental Capacity and Gender
Romeo and Juliet laws do not apply only to voluntary sexual activities involving heterosexual teenagers. Despite the age of consent laws, a person’s mental capacity may be considered even if the two people engaging in sex are close in age. For example, it is highly unlikely that a Romeo and Juliet law will apply to a case involving a 17-year old teenager with the mental capacity of a much younger child. In cases like this, sexual activity is considered non-consensual and treated as rape or sexual assault.
In recent history, same-sex couplings involving teenagers close in age have been hotly contested, such as a case involving Matthew Limon of Kansas. Diagnosed as mentally retarded, Limon turned 18-years-old in February of 2000. Shortly after his birthday, Limon engaged in oral sex with another mentally challenged male who was just shy of his 15th birthday. Convicted of statutory rape, Limon was ordered to serve 17 years in prison and served five years before attorneys won an appeal on his behalf.
Romeo and Juliet Laws by State
In some states, there is no legal age of consent. Most others, however, set consent between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. At this time, Romeo and Juliet laws only apply in the following states:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- N. Carolina
- S. Dakota
- W. Virginia
In states where there is no official Romeo and Juliet law, a court may still consider a minor’s age and whether or not the sexual activity was voluntary. For example, there is no such thing as a Romeo and Juliet law in California. In that state, “unlawful sex with a minor” is precisely how it sounds – illegal. Even two minors engaging in voluntary sexual activity, misdemeanor charges may be applied. In that state, nuanced relationships aren’t addressed by a Romeo and Juliet law, per se, but are addressed in other ways.
For example, individuals three years older than their underage sexual partner may be charged with a misdemeanor offense. An individual more than three years older may face either a misdemeanor or a felony at the discretion of a judge. However, if the oldest person in a statutory rape case is over the age of 21 and the minor is under the age of 16, the charge is always felonious. This type of relationship may result in the older person being imprisoned up to four years.
Statutory Rape and Romeo and Juliet Cases Are Rare
A 20-year study of data from police departments across the nation concluded that statutory rape cases are rare in comparison to other sexual crimes. Among those cases, instances where a Romeo and Juliet law may apply appear to be even rarer. Many believe gender and sexual orientation may also play a role in statutory rape reporting and subsequent charges. Detailed studies of cases involving same-sex pairings result in statutory rape charges more often than opposite-sex pairings do. Situations where a female is older than a male also tend to result in statutory rape charges more often than when a male is older.
Need More Information?
Individuals involved in voluntary sexual relationships with a legal minor who have been charged with statutory rape should consult an attorney. A legal professional can help determine the next course of action and whether a Romeo and Juliet law might apply. Even without charges, an adult engaging in a voluntary sexual affair with a teenager should know what the age of consent is in the state where the teenager lives. You should also know whether or not statutory rape charges could become an issue. Sex with minors should never be taken lightly even when a relationship is perceived to be voluntary. Chronological age and mental capacity are always a consideration, even when Romeo and Juliet laws may help lessen charges and reduce penalties. For more information on statutory rape, please visit our article archives.