A Brief Overview of Statutory Rape

When Mistake is No Defense: A Short Explanation of Statutory Rape

Spring has finally sprung for good, and to paraphrase Tennyson, in Spring a young person’s thoughts turn to love. However, as many of us can attest to, strong emotion does not always help people make the wisest decisions. With romance in the air, especially among young people, it seems like a good idea to discuss when lustful actions may end up leading to a prison cell, which is why this week I’m discussing statutory rape.

Statutory rape is defined by N.C.G.S. §14-27.7A as engaging in intercourse or another sexual act with someone who is 13, 14, or 15 years of age, and the two parties are not legally married. If the defendant is at least six years older than the victim, the offense is sentenced as a Class B1 felony. If the defendant is more than four years older than the victim, but less than six years older, then the offense is punishable as a Class C felony. Statutory rape is a charge that can result in some serious prison time. You could even be forced to register as a sex offender if convicted.

Age of Consent and Statutory Rape

The age of consent in North Carolina is sixteen years. Under N.C. law, any individual under the age of sixteen is considered unable to consent to sexual intercourse. Thus, consent is not considered a defense to statutory rape because minors aged fifteen and under cannot by law consent to sex. N.C. law, however, does recognize that regardless of what the law says, hormonal teenagers sometimes become intimate prior to the age of consent. The N.C. statutory rape law includes what is popularly known as a “Romeo and Juliet clause.” A defendant must be at least four years and a day older than the alleged victim in order for statutory rape to have occurred. In this way, lovebirds of comparable ages are not punished for partaking in physical intimacy, even if one of the partners is below North Carolina’s age of consent. Furthermore, since individuals under the age of 18 can get married with parental permission in N.C., minors who are below the age of consent are not subject to statutory rape jurisdiction if they are legally married to the person they are engaging in intercourse with.

Statutory rape is what is known as a strict liability crime. This means that you don’t need to have intended to do something wrong or even been aware that what you are doing was wrong – the conduct itself is enough for someone to be found guilty of the offense. You can be charged, tried, and sentenced to a strict liability crime due to an honest mistake.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you genuinely believed that the person you were sleeping with was 18 years old. It doesn’t matter if your lover told you that they were eighteen. The person in question could have showed you two forms of government I.D. and had the doctor that was present for their birth swear on a stack of Bibles that they were a legal adult – under North Carolina law, none of these things will serve as a defense to someone who is charged with statutory rape.

What then is the solution to this issue? What is a person supposed to do to protect themselves from a charge of statutory rape? Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet in this scenario. Although an equitable argument can be made during sentencing or plea negotiations if a person was affirmatively misled about the age of their sexual partner, this doesn’t change the fact that sexual conduct with an underage individual can open you up to criminal liability. The best prevention tool is to use common sense. Even if the object of your affection has set your heart aflame, don’t let passion cloud your judgment. Look at context clues. Is your love interest still living with parents or guardians? Do they have their own car? How about a job? What are their hobbies? While this is not foolproof by any means, it does make it less likely that you will end up in a compromising position with someone who is underage.

If you do find yourself charged with statutory rape, my first piece of advice is the same for all people charged with a crime – don’t talk to the police. Sit down, shut up, and ask for an attorney. Many defendants charged with statutory rape blunder their way into a conviction by attempting to set the record straight with cops. Admitting to sexual intercourse with an underage partner, even if it was consensual and you did not know your partner’s age, is enough for guilt. Time after time, I have seen defendants hand the police everything that is needed for a conviction because they think their mistake is enough to protect them from legal repercussions.

If you take nothing else away from this, please remember not to be a fool in love, and don’t chit-chat about your love life with Officer Friendly. Otherwise, you might be making an appointment to speak with me in my office.