Statutory Rape: Reporting Myths & Facts
By: Vincent Imhoff, Esq. & Sapana Shah
In efforts to reduce the crisis of teenage pregnancies and epidemic of welfare-dependant fatherless families, the laws governing statutory rape have become exceedingly strict and more aggressively enforced in the last decade. In effect, nearly every state has instituted a broader category of definition and has extended the time to find and punish perpetrators. Despite this expansion of explicit laws proscribing statutory rape, the potential for conviction of a defendant depends on various legal issues: the year of commission, the status of relationship with the child, the role of the accuser in legal proceedings, the evidence used to support the charge, and prior criminal history of the defendant.
Definitions of Statutory Rape
Statutory rape laws define the age below which an individual is legally incapable of consenting to sexual activity; statutory rape laws assume that all activities with individuals below this age are coercive, even if both parties believe their participation is voluntary or consensual. The penal code or criminal code of each state dictates the specific sexual acts that constitute a felony or misdemeanor offense of statutory rape. A common misconception is that the age of consent is the single factor that determines the legality of sexual activity. However, there are only 12 states that have a single age of consent. For instance, in California, statutory rape is defined as: An act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person who is not the spouse of the perpetrator, if the person is a minor, a person under the age of 18″ (Penal Code 261.5(a)). New York also, has a single age of consent: If the victim is under 17 and the perpetrator is any age, this constitutes a misdemeanor sexual offense (Article 130, New York Penal Code). In the remaining 39 states, the legal nature of sexual intercourse is determined by age differentials between the child and defendant, the minimum age of the child, and/or the minimum age of the defendant. In Texas, for instance, the age of consent is 17 and the minimum age of child is 14 with an age differential of 3 years; thus, individuals who are at least 14 years of age can legally engage in sexual activities if the defendant is less than 3 years older than the accuser (Texas Penal Code 22.011(a)(2)).
Statute of Limitations
It is often the case with statutory rape cases that memories fade, evidence gets destroyed, and thus defendants may lose the tools to supports their case. Therefore, many states impose a statute of limitations for prosecution in order to ensure that the lawsuits are based on a credible testimony and evidence and to ensure the integrity of the U.S. Justice System. In the last decade, however, the impetus to prosecute statutory rapists has resulted in either the lack of statute of limitations or an extension of the limitations period. For instance, the statute of limitations for California permits prosecution of the crime within six years after its commission (California Penal Code 800), which is 3 years longer than its original time limitation. Additionally, under the DNA Exception rule, California further permits prosecution of statutory rape within one year of the date on which the identity of the suspect is conclusively established by DNA testing or within 10 years of the offense, codified under California Penal Code 803 (2001). For defendants who may currently face a statutory rape lawsuit, it is significant to note that it is possible prosecution may not be permissible if the commission of sexual act occurred before the extended statute of limitations was instituted. As the Supreme Court held in Stogner v. California No. 01-1757 (US Sup. Ct. 06/26/2003):
A law enacted after expiration of a previously applicable limitations period violates the Ex Post Facto Clause when it is applied to revive a previously time-barred prosecution…Such features produce the kind of retroactivity that the Constitution forbids.
Other Legal Issues Concerning Statutory Rape
Beyond the proscription of statutory rape defined by states definitions and the respective statute of limitations, other legal issues are equally imperative with respect to prosecution. First, most states make exceptions to their statutory rape laws if the adult and child are legally married during the time of commission of sexual conduct. Among many states, California and Texas stipulate this exception in their state penal codes. Secondly, the role of the accuser in legal proceedings and the type of evidence put forth are significant factors that may affect the outcome of the case; if the sexual act is clearly consensual and the child refuses to testify, it is possible that the defendant will stand free of conviction. Moreover, individual jurisdictions in many states prosecute cases based on their own criteria; therefore, while there may be some evidence that confirms the legally age-inappropriate sexual behavior, a combination of factors including the age differential between the child and adult, year of commission, and prior criminal history of the adult may determine the outcome of the case, depending on the state and county. Lastly, because the nature of the sexual act may determine whether it is a felony or misdemeanor offense, cases with insufficient evidence or lack of testimony from the accuser may result in reduced charges.
The unfortunate result of the stringent statutory rape laws is the accusation of suspects made long after the commission of the sexual act, leading to unreliable testimony and unfair prosecutions. Furthermore, retroactive application of current statutes of limitations violates the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution, and thus should eliminate any possibility for prosecution of a crime committed before the implementation of the extended statute. Due to the potential for an unfair trial and the complex legal issues surrounding each statutory rape case, it is imperative that the defendant consults with qualified counsel as soon as possible. The methods in which the defendant can additionally protect his or her self is by exercising the right to remain silent, by not investigating own case, gathering documentation of good character, (such as reference letters, employment history, community service, etc.), and keeping a diary of all significant events and potential witnesses.
Vince Imhoff is the Managing Partner of Imhoff & Associates, P.C., Criminal Defense Attorneys, practicing criminal defense law.
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