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Romeo and Juliet Laws Texas

March 21, 2024

Romeo and Juliet Laws in Texas

Texas, like many other states, has enacted what are commonly known as “Romeo and Juliet” laws to address situations where teens who are close in age engage in consensual sexual conduct. These laws aim to protect these teens from harsh penalties under statutory rape laws by providing an affirmative defense if certain conditions are met.

The rationale behind Romeo and Juliet laws is that there is a big difference between predatory sexual behavior by an adult and sexual activity between teens who are close in age and in a romantic relationship, even if that relationship violates the statutory age of consent. Romeo and Juliet laws recognize that consensual teen relationships are a reality, and that discretion should be used in prosecuting these cases.

What is the Age of Consent in Texas?

In Texas, the age of consent is 17 years old. This means that an adult (ages 18 or older) who engages in sexual activity with a minor under the age of 17 has committed statutory rape. Statutory rape is a strict liability crime, meaning that the consent of the younger person or the defendant’s lack of knowledge of their age is not a defense.

What is the Romeo and Juliet Law in Texas?

Texas’ version of the Romeo and Juliet law is contained in Section 22.011(e) of the Texas Penal Code. It provides an affirmative defense that can be raised by a defendant accused of statutory rape if:

  • The defendant is not more than 3 years older than the victim
  • The victim is at least 14 years old
  • The relationship between the defendant and victim was consensual

If these conditions are met, a defendant can raise the Romeo and Juliet defense to avoid being convicted and having to register as a sex offender. However, the defendant still bears the burden of proving this defense to the jury.

When Does the Romeo and Juliet Law Apply?

For the Romeo and Juliet defense to apply, the victim must be at least 14 years old and the defendant can be no more than 3 years older. So some possible age combinations where this defense could be raised include:

  • 14 year old victim and 17 year old defendant
  • 15 year old victim and 18 year old defendant
  • 16 year old victim and 19 year old defendant

However, if the victim is under 14 or the defendant is more than 3 years older, then the Romeo and Juliet law would not apply as a defense. For example, it would not provide protection in these scenarios:

  • 13 year old victim and 17 year old defendant
  • 14 year old victim and 20 year old defendant

Does Parental Consent Matter?

No, parental consent does not allow an underage minor to legally consent to sexual activity. The Romeo and Juliet law only considers the relative ages of the victim and defendant, not whether the parents approved of the relationship.

Can 18 Year Olds Use the Romeo and Juliet Law?

Yes, 18 year olds can raise the Romeo and Juliet defense as long as the other requirements are met. For example, if an 18 year old engaged in consensual sexual activity with a 15 year old, they could potentially raise this defense if charged with statutory rape.

Does the Romeo and Juliet Law Apply to Same-Sex Couples?

Yes, the Romeo and Juliet laws apply equally to both opposite sex and same-sex couples as long as the requirements are satisfied.

What Are the Penalties for Statutory Rape in Texas?

Statutory rape is typically charged as sexual assault of a minor under Texas law. Penalties vary depending on the ages of the victim and defendant:

  • If the victim is under 14, it is a first degree felony punishable by 5-99 years in prison.
  • If the victim is 14-16 years old and the defendant is at least 3 years older, it is a second degree felony with 2-20 years in prison.
  • If the victim is 14-16 years old and the defendant is within 3 years of age, it is a third degree felony with 2-10 years in prison.

In addition to possible prison time, those convicted would have to register as sex offenders. The Romeo and Juliet defense, if applicable, helps avoid these serious penalties that can severely impact a young person’s life.

What Other States Have Romeo and Juliet Laws?

As of 2023, most states have adopted some form of Romeo and Juliet laws to provide defenses or mitigated punishments for consensual sexual activity between minors close in age. According to the advocacy group Age of Consent, as of February 2023, the following states have Romeo and Juliet laws:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Only California, Florida, Delaware, and Wisconsin have no Romeo and Juliet laws on the books. However, even among states with these laws, there is variation in the permitted age gaps and how the defenses or exemptions work.

Criticisms of Romeo and Juliet Laws

While Romeo and Juliet laws were enacted to ameliorate harsh punishments on consensual teen relationships, there are some criticisms of these laws to consider:

  • They still allow older teens to avoid statutory rape charges even if the relationship was predatory or coercive.
  • Proving whether the relationship was truly consensual can be difficult.
  • The age gaps permitted are arbitrary and don’t account for differences in maturity.
  • These laws undermine strict statutory rape laws designed to protect minors.
  • There are cases where Romeo and Juliet laws have protected relationships with significant age differences.

Overall, Romeo and Juliet laws remain controversial. There are reasonable arguments on both sides – those aimed at protecting consensual teen relationships versus those concerned about weakening statutory rape laws. There is still debate around finding the right balance in the law.

The Bottom Line on Romeo and Juliet Laws in Texas

Texas’ Romeo and Juliet law provides a way for teens and young adults engaging in consensual sexual activity with minors close in age to avoid conviction and sex offender registration. While not a complete defense, it offers a measure of protection by allowing an affirmative defense if the requirements around age difference and consent are satisfied. However, there are still criticisms around whether these laws strike the right balance in protecting minors. The debate around Romeo and Juliet laws in Texas and elsewhere continues.

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