Romeo and Juliet laws address the issue of consensual sex between teens and young adults. Historically, these young adults could be charged with statutory rape when engaging in a relationship or sexual relations with someone who is technically under the age of consent. Romeo and Juliet laws typically reduce or eliminate the statutory rape penalty in many cases, though the laws vary by state. To explore this concept, consider the following Romeo and Juliet laws definition.
Definition of Romeo and Juliet Laws
- Provisions of statutory laws in some states that pertain to individuals under the age of consent who engage in sexual intercourse, when there is a minor age difference.
What are Romeo and Juliet Laws
Romeo and Juliet laws are clauses built into statutory rape laws in some states. These laws address situations in which two individuals who are close in age, and one of whom is not yet of legal age, engage in consensual sexual relations. The age difference allowed by Romeo and Juliet laws varies by state, though it is generally not more than five years. Each state’s law specifies which criminal charges, if any, may apply to each situation. These often include:
- Reducing the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor
- Reducing the penalties for the charges
- Allowing the defendant to have his record expunged after successfully serving his sentence
- Eliminating the requirement that the perpetrator register as a sex offender, or reducing the length of time he must remain on the sex offender registry
What is the Age of Consent
Age of consent is the age at which a person has the ability to legally consent to sexual intercourse. In the United States, the term age of consent typically refers to a person’s chronological age, but in some instances, it can refer to the individual’s mental age.
According to federal law, it is illegal to have sexual relations with anyone between the ages of 12 and 18, if that person is four or more years younger than the perpetrator. Each state has specific legal age of consent laws, which vary from 10 to 18 years of age.
Some states do not have a Romeo and Juliet law, instead setting a specific age of consent. If any person engages in consensual sex prior to that age, they have committed a crime, regardless of how close in age the parties are.
The following table shows the age of consent according to the law for each state. It also shows the age differences allowed by the state’s Romeo and Juliet law. It is important to notice that not all states have Romeo and Juliet laws.
Consent by State
Age of Consent
Example of Romeo and Juliet Laws in the State of Texas
According to Texas statutes, an individual engaging in sex with a minor will not be charged with statutory rape, nor required to register as a sex offender if:
- The accused was less than 3 years older than the victim
- The victim was at least 14 years old
- The accused was not a registered sex offender at the time of the act
- The act was consensual
The term statutory rape refers to engaging in a sex act with someone who is below the legal age of consent. This term most often applies to instances of an adult having sex with someone under age, but it can apply in other situations as well, depending on the laws of the state in which it occurred. In many jurisdictions, the adult may face severe statutory rape penalties, even if the underage party consented to the act.
Statutory rape is set apart from child molestation or forcible rape, in that, had both parties been above the age of consent, the act would not be considered a crime. Statutory rape laws date back centuries, having been put into place to protect minors who were not mature enough to give consent. Statutory rape laws originally protected only female victims from male perpetrators. Over the centuries, however, the laws have expanded to become more gender-neutral.
Brendan, 16, and his girlfriend Lila, 14, live and attend school in Texas. In Texas, the legal age of consent for sex is 17, but the state’s Rome and Juliet law allows an age gap of 3 years, in the event one party has reached the age of majority.
The teen couple embarks on a sexual relationship, and while Lila is legally not of consenting age, the age difference of only 2 years between the two makes the sexual activity legal. In this example of Romeo and Juliet laws, however, had Brendan been 18, making the age difference 4 years instead of 3, he could be subject to statutory rape charges.
Penalties for Statutory Rape
Even though sex between teens and young adults if often consensual, statutory rape is a serious crime that can have a lasting negative impact on the parties involved. Charges of statutory rape range from misdemeanor crimes to felonies, the penalties of which vary just as greatly. Such penalties vary by state, as well as by the specific circumstances involved.
In general, penalties for statutory rape may include fines, probation and community service, or may require imprisonment for a year or more. In some circumstances, the perpetrator may be required to register as a sex offender in his or her state. Penalties for statutory rape may be reduced, if the state has a Romeo and Juliet law, and the specified conditions are met.
Sex Offender Registry
The laws of some states require an individual convicted of statutory rape to register as a sex offender. Once registered, the name of the offender appears on a list that is made available to the public. Each state maintains its own registry, but the U.S. Department of Justice maintains a registry compiled of each individual state’s list. The National Sex Offender Registry (NSOPW) allows anyone to search by name or location, regardless of the state in which the crime may have occurred.
Registered sex offenders are subject to certain restrictions, such as maintaining a certain distance from schools and other places where children frequent. Once registered as a sex offender, the offender is required to check in at certain intervals, and he must notify the authorities when he moves. Romeo and Juliet laws of each state attempt to address the issue of consenting young couples being prosecuted and labeled sex offenders for life.
Extreme Punishment in Romeo and Juliet Law Case
In February 2000, Matthew Limon, a boy who had been diagnosed with mild mental retardation, turned 18. A week after his birthday, he performed oral sex on another boy who was one month away from his 15th birthday. Both boys were students of a school for the developmentally disabled in Kansas. Kansas has a Romeo and Juliet law, which defines unlawful voluntary sexual relations:
“(a) Unlawful voluntary sexual relations is engaging in voluntary: (1) sexual intercourse; (2) sodomy; or (3) lewd fondling or touching with a child who is 14 years of age but less than 16 years of age and the offender is less than 19 years of age and less than four years of age older than the child and child and the offender are the only parties involved and are members of the opposite sex.”
While this Romeo and Juliet law would seem to protect the young men, it specifically excluded same-sex relations. Matthew was charged with criminal sodomy. His defense team argued the state’s Romeo and Juliet law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, as it discriminated based on sexual orientation. The trial court disagreed, and Matthew was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Had the act had occurred between a male and a female, the sentence would have been limited to a maximum of 15 months. Matthew’s sentence also required him to complete 5 years of parole after his release from prison, and that he register as a sex offender.
The Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the conviction on the basis that a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision had ruled that sodomy laws were constitutional. Matthew appealed his case to the Kansas Supreme Court, which refused to review it. The case then made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Matthew’s conviction, noting that, June 26, 2003, the Court had ruled that laws forbidding consensual sex between people of the same sex were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower for further review.
Eventually, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s Romeo and Juliet law indeed violate the Equal Protection Clauses of both the state of Kansas and the U.S. Constitutions. After spending 5 years in prison, Matthew was released on November 1, 2005.
Man Released from Prison after Change in Romeo and Juliet Law
In 2003, 17-year old Genarlow Wilson attended a private New Year’s Eve party, in a hotel room. During the party, Wilson engaged in oral sex with 15-year old Kristie, who confirmed the act was consensual. Wilson also had sex with a 17-year old girl that night. This girl, however, woke up naked and disoriented the next day, and claimed she was raped. This prompted a police investigation, in which condoms and a video tape of Wilson taking part in the sexual acts were found. In the video, the 17-year old girl appeared intoxicated, but did not ask Wilson to stop.
Shortly after the investigation concluded, Wilson was charged with rape. The case went to trial, and the jury acquitted Wilson of the rape charge, since 15-year old Kristie testified that the act was consensual. However, because Georgia’s age of consent is 16, the jury convicted Wilson of aggravated child molestation. The court sentenced Wilson to 10 years in prison, followed by a year of parole, and required him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
The case was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court twice, each time resulting in a refusal to hear the case. A slew of motions, and a scathing editorial in the New York Times, saw the case before the Georgia Supreme Court again. This time, the Court took into consideration that the laws were intended to punish sexual predators, not teen lovers. On October 26, 2007, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Wilson’s sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered an immediate release.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
- Misdemeanor – A crime regarded as less serious than a felony. Misdemeanor crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment of less than one year.
- Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.