In Colorado, like in many states, we colloquially call our statutory rape laws the “Romeo and Juliet law”. This is in reference to the fact that Shakespeare’s titular pair were several years apart in age, and that Juliet was underage while Romeo was not; in a Romeo and Juliet law, there is an exception for young people close in age where one is underage.
The premise of the Romeo and Juliet law is that minors are not capable of giving consent to sexual activity. Statutory rape occurs when an adult (a person over the age of 18) engages in sexual activity with someone under the age of 15.
It’s important to note that while statutory rape is still rape, Colorado differentiates it from other types of rape. Rape that involves force or an assault is very much illegal, and Colorado prosecutes it as forcible rape. Other assaults of a sexual nature might fall under the state’s assault and battery or molestation laws.
In this post, Denver attorney Jeff Weeden will answer all your questions about Colorado’s Romeo and Juliet law. We’ll also talk about the potential penalties for those who violate the Romeo and Juliet law.
What are Colorado’s Statutory Rape Laws?
First, let’s talk more about the difference between statutory rape and forcible rape.
As we mentioned before, both crimes are rape in the eyes of the law. However, the rape becomes statutory when there is a difference in age between the two parties, and not when there was force involved. The term “statutory” means that the law would not consider the sexual activity to be rape if both parties were over the age of 18. The law does not believe a minor can consent, thus making the sexual activity rape.
Colorado prosecutes statutory rape under the sexual assault laws. The severity of the charge, and the penalty, depend on the ages of the two parties.
A sexual assault occurs when there is some form of penetration, however slight, between:
- A minor who is 14 or younger and a defendant who is at least four years older than the minor, or
- A 15 or 16 years old minor and a defendant who is at least ten years older than the minor.
If the minor is 14 or younger, the offense is a class 4 felony. In the second case, when the minor is 15 or 16, this is a misdemeanor.
Sexual assault on a child occurs when there is sexual touching, not including penetration, even if the touching occurs over their clothing. The minor in question must be 14 or younger and the defendant at least four years older than the minor. This offense is also a class 4 felony.
What are the Penalties for Statutory Rape in Colorado?
Sexual assault on a child is a class 4 felony. Sexual assault is also a class 4 felony when the minor is 14 or younger. If the minor is between 14 and 17, sexual assault is a misdemeanor.
The penalty for sexual assault where the minor is 14 or younger is anywhere from 2 to 6 years in prison. The fines could be anywhere from $2000 to $500,000.
If the minor is 15 or 16, the misdemeanor penalties will be a fine between $500 and $5000, as well as at least six months in jail.
Sexual assault on a child is also a class 4 felony and has the same penalty as sexual assault with a minor 14 or younger.
State law also requires that, in addition to the fines and prison time, that people with statutory rape charges must register as sexual offenders.
What Are Some Legal Defenses to a Statutory Rape Charge?
Defendants that Colorado charges with statutory rape have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants. Defendants can argue that the crime simply didn’t take place. They can argue that someone else committed the crime.
Specifically, in cases of statutory rape, one or more of the following defense strategies may also apply:
Colorado has an exemption for statutory rape that allows two married people to have consensual sex, regardless of their ages.
Let’s look at an example: minors cannot consent to sex. So, if a 13-year-old has sex with her 19-year-old boyfriend, the boyfriend is guilty of statutory rape. Colorado can and will prosecute him under its sexual assault laws.
But if the two are legally married and living in Colorado, no crime has taken place.
It is important to note that despite this law, it is still illegal to forcibly rape your spouse. If a man forcibly rapes his wife, he has no defense under the law, despite the fact that they were married.
The Romeo and Juliet Law
We’re back to Shakespeare. This exception exists to protect two teenagers engaging in consensual sex when they are close in age, as Romeo and Juliet were.
The Romeo and Juliet law allows consensual sex between a minor 14 or younger and a defendant 3 or fewer years older than that minor. This means that if a 13-year-old engages in consensual sex with a 16-year-old, no crime has taken place.
The Romeo and Juliet law also protects minors 15 or 16 and defendants that are nine or fewer years older.
Therefore, if a 16-year-old has consensual sex with a 24-year-old, the Romeo and Juliet law protects them from statutory rape charges.
Mistake of Age
This is a defense that defendants often employ when they incur a statutory rape charge. In some states, it is a viable defense.
While it may be true that you believed your partner was older than they were, it is not a viable defense in Colorado. Even if your mistake was reasonable, even if the minor had a fake ID, mistakes in age are not a defense in Colorado.
Jeff Weeden is an experienced attorney serving clients in the Denver, Colorado area.