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What Are Romeo and Juliet Laws in New Jersey?

Posted on: January 31, 2022

Romeo and Juliet laws in New Jersey are those that generally exempt the older member of a young couple against possible statutory rape and other sex offenses. Also called a close-in-age exemption, Romeo and Juliet Laws do not punish teens for having sex with others who are very close in age.

As long as the lovemaking is consensual, the older member of the couple is not guilty of a sex crime as long as that person is less than four years older. However, the younger person must be over age 13.

For example, if a 14-year-old has consensual sex with someone who is 18 or older, a variety of sex crimes could apply. The age difference would be more than four years in this example.

However, if the younger partner were 15, Romeo and Juliet laws could determine no statutory rape or other sex crime occurred.

It helps greatly when the couple has been dating for many months or longer and are known to be lovebirds. But the older cannot be too old, or a statutory rape charge could apply.

Romeo and Juliet Laws Protect Teens against Statutory Rape Charges

Romeo and Juliet laws apply to statutory rape and similar sex crimes. That is one way in which the laws apply. The other way is for registration as a sex offender.

A statutory rape offense occurs whenever one partner is under age 13. The Romeo and Juliet laws could apply to teens from ages 13 through 15, but no younger.

Whenever a teen is age 16 or older, there is no statutory rape in New Jersey regardless of the other person’s age. Therefore, the laws do not apply for anyone who has turned 16 and is the younger of the two or more sexual partners.

It is important to note that thinking a minor is older does not excuse statutory rape. Even if the minor lied about his or her age and provided an ID with a false birthdate, statutory rape laws apply. Ignorance is not a viable legal defense against a statutory rape charge anywhere in the United States.

Why Do Romeo and Juliet Laws Exist?

High school sweethearts sometimes become lifelong couples who eventually marry and have children. Although the instances of two people meeting while very young, falling in love, and staying together for the rest of their lives is very rare, it still happens.

More often, a young couple might meet and stay together for several months to several years. Eventually, life changes, or maturity, cause them to part ways.

A simple basic reality of life is that young couples generally do more than hold hands and kiss. When they are close in age and have consensual sex, that generally is considered normal behavior.

Romeo and Juliet Laws Could Affect Sex Offender Reporting Requirements

When it comes to the New Jersey sex offender registry, the Romeo and Juliet laws can negate the requirement to register. The close-in-age exemption means an older teen who is convicted of a sex crime does not have to register as a sex offender.

Because the close-in-age exemption applies to teens, it gives them a second chance if they are convicted of a relatively low-level sex offense. It would not protect against convictions for more serious offenses, such as rape.

A sex offender registry is intended to last for life. That makes it very important to stay off of it. The Romeo and Juliet laws in New Jersey make that possible for qualifying teens and very young adults.

Other Ways the Laws Could Affect Criminal Penalties

Romeo and Juliet laws could result in significant decreases in potential criminal prosecutions. Instead of throwing the proverbial book at a teen and making that person continue paying for what might have been a consensual act, the law provides significant relief of what otherwise would be a sex offender charge.

Romeo and Juliet laws could go easier on qualifying individuals by:

  • Reducing a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor
  • Reducing penalties for related charges
  • Enabling the defendant to have a criminal record expunged after serving a sentence

Because the Romeo and Juliet laws only apply to teens, there is no relief for adults convicted of sleeping with a minor who is under age 16. That is true even if the minor lied about his or her age and the older partner did not know the minor’s true age.

Offenders who do qualify for relief under Romeo and Juliet laws can benefit greatly from potential charge reductions. There is a big difference between a felony conviction and a misdemeanor conviction. A felony has at least a one-year prison sentence, whereas a misdemeanor is less than a year and possibly no time in jail.

A felon cannot vote in most states without first undergoing a formal process to regain voting rights. In addition, felons never can have access to firearms or own them. Any existing firearms owned by a felon would have to be surrendered or transferred to another party.

The potential to expunge a criminal record related to having sex with a minor under age 16 also is a big benefit. That leaves the offender still able to continue through life without any additional issues arising from the misdemeanor conviction.

Many States Have Romeo and Juliet Laws

New Jersey is not the only state that has Romeo and Juliet laws. Depending on where a potential sex offense with a minor occurred, it could be possible to be guilty in one state but not in another. That is true even if the younger sexual partner is the same person.

For example, the age of consent in New York is 17, and there is no Romeo and Juliet law. If a 17-year-old boy traveled to New York with his 15-year-old girlfriend and they engaged in consensual sex, the boy could be charged with felony statutory rape in New York.

That same act would be legal in New Jersey, owing to the Romeo and Juliet laws in the Garden State. And although New Jersey allows up to four years in age difference to apply the Romeo and Juliet laws, that is not the case in many states.

Several states that have Romeo and Juliet laws only allow up to two or three years in age difference. That means the densely populated mid-Atlantic states, such as New Jersey, routinely have people coming and going into nearby states.

Teens who plan to get together in other states need to learn which ones have which laws regarding the age of consent and whether or not Romeo and Juliet laws would apply.

Prosecutors Cannot Ignore Romeo and Juliet Laws

Romeo and Juliet laws are not optional. If the accused qualifies for relief under the terms of the law, it must be applied.

A prosecutor cannot simply refuse to apply the law and reduce charges or penalties. If a prosecutor does that, the defense could file for a mistrial or appeal of any final verdict based on overcharging the defendant.

A lawyer experienced in criminal defense could help to ensure the Romeo and Juliet laws are applied to protect qualifying defendants.

Monmouth County Criminal Defense Lawyers at Ellis Law Help to Defend the Falsely Accused

If you or someone you know is accused of a crime in which the Romeo and Juliet laws should apply, the experienced and compassionate Monmouth County criminal defense lawyers at Ellis Law are available to help. Our legal team will advocate for those falsely accused. For a free consultation, call us at 732-308-0200 or complete our online form. We are located in Freehold, New Jersey, and help clients throughout Freehold, East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, Monmouth County, Marlboro, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn, New York, and New York City.