Everyone agrees that nothing should be a higher priority than protecting our children, but sometimes, the efforts to protect young people can do more harm than good. Sometimes, the laws that impose penalties on underage sexual activity end up lumping normal teenagers and young adults into the same category as pedophiles and violent sexual predators. In some states, however, “Romeo and Juliet” laws now exempt from some criminal penalties some teenagers and young adults who have had sexual relations with someone under the age of consent.

The age of consent varies from state to state. Romeo and Juliet laws cover those incidents where two people, not that far apart in age, engage in sexual relations, but one of the people has not reached the age of consent.

In most cases and in most states, when someone over the age of consent engages in sexual relations with someone under the age of consent, the older person can be charged with statutory rape or sexual assault on a child.

In a number of states, for example, an 18-year-old who has sex with his or her 16-year-old girlfriend can be prosecuted and convicted for sexual assault, sentenced to prison, and compelled to register as a sex offender along with that state’s convicted rapists and pedophiles. But that can’t happen now in the state of Texas, thanks to the state’s revised Romeo and Juliet law which took effect back in 2011.

PRECISELY WHAT DOES THE TEXAS ROMEO AND JULIET LAW DO?

Under the Texas version of the Romeo and Juliet law, if a young adult over the age of 17 has consensual sexual relations with someone who is at least 15, and if there is no more than a four-year age difference, Texas will not require the older person to register as a sex offender, even if that person is convicted of sexual assault or statutory rape. Opponents of the law charged that Texas lawmakers were “legalizing sex for 15-year-olds” since the law allows anyone up to four years older to have consensual sex with someone who is 15.

The 2011 law also permits many of those who were convicted for sexual assault under the old law to clear their names. If they have not already done so, those who were ordered to register as sex offenders for consensual sex with someone under age 18 can ask the court to review the case. If the court finds that the relationship was consensual and the offender is not a threat to the community, it can release the offender from the sex offender registry.

However, the Texas 2011 Romeo and Juliet law is extremely limited and precise. Although it protects the older person in a relationship from any requirement to register as a sex offender, it does not protect the older person from prosecution for sexual assault or statutory rape. The penalties for these crimes can be quite severe, so anyone facing a sex crime charge in this state should obtain the advice and services of an experienced Plano criminal defense attorney.

DOES THE ROMEO AND JULIET LAW APPLY TO ADULTS IN POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY?

In Texas and every other state, Romeo and Juliet laws do not protect an older person who has allegedly abused a position of authority such as a teacher or a coach who has had a sexual relationship with a student or young athlete. Additionally, Romeo and Juliet laws do not apply to persons accused of sexual acts with underage persons if those acts involve coercion, violence, or the threat of violence.

Supporters of the Romeo and Juliet laws insist by that removing individuals who pose no threat to the public from sex offender registries, authorities are better able to determine who is dangerous and needs to be monitored. The status of sex offender can also be a considerable barrier to employment and even to housing. Many states limit the rights of registered sex offenders to live in neighborhoods near schools, parks, and playgrounds.

Texas courts have held that a child under the age of thirteen cannot consent to sexual relations under any circumstances. Statutory rape laws are based on the presumption that minors are incapable of informed consent. In Texas, statutory rape is generally defined as sexual intercourse between a person under the age of 18 and an adult.

The law recognizes three types of crimes that may constitute statutory rape in this state:

Aggravated sexual assault: Aggravated sexual assault is the sexual penetration of a minor below the age of 14 by a defendant of any age. Aggravated sexual assault is a first-degree felony in Texas, and a conviction is punishable by a sentence of 5 to 99 years in a Texas state prison.

Sexual assault: Sexual assault is the sexual penetration of a minor below the age of 18 by a defendant who is four or more years older. Sexual assault is a second-degree felony in Texas, and a conviction is punishable by a sentence of 2 to 20 years in a Texas state prison.

Indecency with a child: Indecency with a child is any sexual contact meant to arouse or gratify sexual desire between a minor below the age of 18 and a defendant who is four or more years older. Indecency with a child is a second-degree felony in Texas, and a conviction is punishable by a sentence of 2 to 20 years in a Texas state prison.

IF YOU ARE ACCUSED OF STATUTORY RAPE, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

Defendants charged with statutory rape often insist that they had no way to know that the victim was below the age of consent. However, in Texas, a defendant cannot rely on a mistake of age –even a reasonable mistake that almost any reasonable person might make – to avoid a statutory rape conviction in this state. Texas, like most states, does not recognize a mistake of age as an acceptable defense against the charge of statutory rape.

Statutory rape laws are aggressively enforced in the state of Texas. If you are convicted of statutory rape, no leniency will be forthcoming from the courts. If you are charged with statutory rape, whether or not you are actually innocent or guilty as charged, you’ll need the advice and services of an experienced Plano criminal defense attorney – someone who has represented statutory rape defendants in the past and who knows how to defend you effectively.