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What is a Romeo and Juliet Law?

This and other sexual consent rules in New Jersey

Statutory rape is a serious crime, and as such should reasonably be distinguished from a consensual sexual relationship between two teenagers. The charge of statutory rape typically applies to sexual intercourse between an adult (18-year-old or older) and someone under the legal age of consent (in New Jersey, 16-year-old).

Statutory rape is distinguishable from forcible rape, in that it’s a status offense, and does not require any element of force. The only requirement is that the accused had sexual relations with someone under the age of consent. Nonetheless, it is prosecuted as a sexual assault crime, and penalties can include prison time and registration as a sex offender. A mistake or misrepresentation in age is not a valid defense.

Young adults (and their parents) have good reason to be concerned if they think they may be subject to criminal charges, but there are some variables to age of consent rules. In the interest of recognizing that consensual sex between two teens should not be a crime, New Jersey has what is known as a Romeo and Juliet law, creating an exception to statutory rape for two young people who do not have a large age gap.

Basically, where the age difference is not more than four years, they may have consensual sex with a partner between 13 years old and 16 years old. 

Statutory Rape Laws

The categories of statutory rape in New Jersey law break down as follows:

1. Aggravated sexual assault: sexual penetration with someone who is

  • under the age of 13, or
  • between the ages of 13 and 16 and the defendant is a relative or is in a supervisory, disciplinary or parental position

2. Sexual assault: sexual contact with someone

  • under age 16 where the defendant is at least four years older, or
  • between 16 and 18 and the defendant is a relative or is in a supervisory, disciplinary or parental position

The age of legal consent in New Jersey varies according to the circumstances, from as young as 13 if in a consensual relationship with someone no older than 17, to as old as 18 where engaged in sexual contact with a relative or other authority figure. New Jersey’s close-in-age provisions are intended to recognize that there are circumstances warranting more nuanced considerations than a strict status charge would allow.

That said, because of the nature of the status crime, you can still have charges brought against you, and you could raise the close-in-age facts as a defense. Bear in mind that age of consent laws vary significantly from state to state. If you travel to, say, California, any act occurring within that state would be treated according to California law. Some states, including California, have no Romeo and Juliet exception and set the age of consent at 18.

It’s a slippery rule, and angry parents and vengeful exes may happen. Should a statutory rape charge be brought against someone in your life, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. For more information on this area of law, see our overview of sex offenses.

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