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Romeo and Juliet Laws Massachusetts

March 21, 2024

Romeo and Juliet Laws in Massachusetts

Romeo and Juliet Laws in Massachusetts

Romeo and Juliet laws are provisions that reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for young people who engage in consensual sexual activity with someone under the age of consent. These laws are intended to prevent older teenagers and young adults from being prosecuted for statutory rape when they have consensual sex with someone close to their own age.

Massachusetts does not have a Romeo and Juliet law. This means that anyone who engages in sexual activity with someone under the age of consent in Massachusetts could face criminal charges, even if the two people are close in age.

Age of Consent in Massachusetts

The age of consent in Massachusetts is 16 years old. This is the age at which an individual can legally consent to sexual activity with another person who is also of legal age.

In Massachusetts, it is against the law for an adult (someone 18 or older) to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 16), even if the sex is consensual. Those who break the law face felony charges and at least 5 years in prison.

Statutory Rape Laws in Massachusetts

Massachusetts statutory rape laws, also known as “statutory rape” laws, make it illegal for an individual to have consensual sexual intercourse with a person under age 16. It does not matter if the younger party consents to or initiates the sexual contact.

There is no minimum age limit for the victim when it comes to statutory rape. A person who is under 16 years of age is legally incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse with anyone, including another minor.

Penalties for Statutory Rape in Massachusetts

Massachusetts has tiered penalties for statutory rape based on the age of the perpetrator and the age difference between the victim and defendant.

  • If the perpetrator is under 18, it is a misdemeanor offense with maximum sentencing of 1 year.
  • If the perpetrator is 18 or older and the victim is between 14 and 16 years old, it is a felony with up to 5 years in prison.
  • If the perpetrator is 18 or older and the victim is under 14 years old, it is a felony with up to 20 years in prison.

In addition to imprisonment, those convicted of statutory rape in Massachusetts may also face fines up to $10,000 and being required to register as a sex offender.

Lack of Romeo and Juliet Protections

Many other states have adopted Romeo and Juliet laws to provide protections for consensual sexual relationships between minors. However, Massachusetts is one of just a few states that has not adopted any Romeo and Juliet exemptions.

This means that even if two teenagers engage in a consensual sexual relationship, and are close in age, they would technically be committing statutory rape under Massachusetts law. The older participant could face criminal charges.

For example, if a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old were in a relationship and engaged in consensual sex, the 17-year-old could be charged with statutory rape in Massachusetts. In a state with Romeo and Juliet protections, this type of relationship would be exempt from statutory rape laws.

Arguments For and Against Romeo and Juliet Laws

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue when it comes to protecting consensual teenage relationships:

Arguments for Romeo and Juliet laws:

  • Prevents overly harsh punishments for teenagers in consensual relationships
  • Acknowledges that teenagers often engage in sexual activity
  • Protects against unfair targeting by prosecutors
  • Avoids branding consensual relationships as sex offenses

Arguments against Romeo and Juliet laws:

  • Can still allow older teens to take advantage of younger teens
  • May undermine strict statutory rape laws
  • Arbitrary age limits are still required
  • Difficult to determine what is truly a consensual relationship

Ultimately, the Massachusetts legislature has not been convinced that Romeo and Juliet laws are appropriate for the state. But many legal experts and advocates have argued that some protections for consensual teen relationships should be adopted.

Defenses to Statutory Rape

In Massachusetts, it is very difficult to defend against a statutory rape charge. The only two recognized defenses are:

  1. You reasonably did not know the minor’s age – If you can prove you had an honest and reasonable belief that the minor was over 16 based on their statements or appearance, you may be able to use this defense. However, it is very difficult to convince a jury of this.
  2. The minor lied about their age – If you can prove the minor showed you identification indicating they were over 16, and you reasonably relied on that ID, this may be a defense. But minors using fake IDs is not a complete defense in Massachusetts courts.

In almost all cases, the defendant’s knowledge of the minor’s age is not relevant. Statutory rape is considered a strict liability offense – if sexual contact occurred, the adult can be convicted regardless of whether they knew the minor’s age or the minor lied.

Comparison to Other States

Massachusetts is in the minority of states that has not adopted any Romeo and Juliet exemptions. Some examples of states that have adopted protections for consensual teen relationships include:

  • Connecticut – Minors who are 13-15 can legally consent to those less than 3 years older.
  • Texas – Minors who are 14-16 can consent to partners within 3 years of age.
  • Pennsylvania – Minors less than 13 years apart are exempt from statutory rape laws.

In these states, the 17-year-old and 15-year-old relationship described above would be legal and protected under the Romeo and Juliet laws. But it remains a strict liability statutory rape offense in Massachusetts.

Should Massachusetts Adopt Romeo and Juliet Laws?

The lack of Romeo and Juliet protections in Massachusetts remains controversial. Many legal experts argue that the law is overly harsh and sweeps up consensual teen relationships in with forcible rape offenses.

Some district attorneys have pushed for reforms to prevent teens in consensual relationships from being charged with statutory rape. But so far, the state legislature has not adopted any exemptions for close-in-age teenage relationships.

Ultimately, the debate involves balancing protecting young people from coercion and exploitation, while also recognizing their emerging sexuality and independence. Reasonable people can disagree on where the line should be drawn.

While Massachusetts remains one of the few states with no Romeo and Juliet provisions, the public debate over the issue will likely continue. With more education and advocacy, the state may someday adopt protections for consensual teen relationships.

The Takeaway

Here are some key points to understand about Romeo and Juliet laws in Massachusetts:

  • There is no close-in-age exemption for consensual sexual relationships.
  • Teens under 16 cannot legally consent, even with another minor.
  • Penalties for statutory rape depend on age of victim and age difference.
  • Very limited defenses exist for statutory rape charges.
  • Massachusetts law sweeps up consensual teen relationships.
  • Debate continues over whether exemptions should be adopted.

While Massachusetts remains one of the strictest states for statutory rape, the public policy debate continues over finding the right balance in the law. The lack of Romeo and Juliet protections likely means many more teens face prosecution than in other states. But so far, Massachusetts lawmakers have erred on the side of strict enforcement.


[1] Is There a ‘Romeo and Juliet Law’ in Massachusetts?

[2] What is the Age of Consent in Massachusetts?

[3] Age of Consent Massachusetts – Statutory Rape – The Fernandez Firm

[4] Writing Style Manual – Pitt branding – University of Pittsburgh

[5] Using Commas, Semicolons, and Colons Within Sentences – The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

[6] Coming of Age on Stage – James Campbell High School

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