So-called “Romeo and Juliet” laws exist in many parts of the United States to protect sexually active young people from undue criminal consequences for consensual relationships. These laws are named after the young protagonists from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. While this law’s bloody and tragic namesake may conjure up dark and dramatic images, these laws actually protect young people from unnecessary legal drama by creating a commonsense loophole for the age of consent and statutory rape laws.
The Romeo and Juliet laws on the books in Maryland and other states protect consensual sex acts between a minor and a partner who is within a certain age range of them, even if this partner may be a legal adult. In several states, this age tolerance is 3 years. In Maryland, however, partners with an age difference of less than 4 years are protected by the Romeo and Juliet law.
For example, an 18-year-old engaging in consensual sex with their 15-year-old partner would be protected by the state’s Romeo and Juliet law, even though it is technically a legal adult having sex with a minor. However, that same 18-year-old would be guilty of statutory rape in Maryland when engaging in a “consensual” sex act with a 14-year-old partner because of the 4-year age difference.
The general idea behind statutory rape laws is that people who have not yet reached the age of legal majority (i.e., 18 years old) cannot legally consent to sexual activity, so the concept of consent becomes irrelevant when a legal adult has sexual contact with a legal child. Many states also establish a separate age of consent, which is a few years lower than the age of legal adulthood, to deal with the reality that teenagers are going to be sexually active regardless of any legal or cultural framework in place to prevent or limit sexual activity. Maryland’s age of consent is 16.
Romeo and Juliet laws go a step further than merely defining an age of consent that is separate from the age of legal adulthood. They do this by creating a limited loophole in statutory rape laws so that young, sexually active partners do not face undue criminal consequences as the result of consensual relationships.
It is important to note that in Maryland, there is no actual crime defined as “statutory rape” within the criminal code. The official charges for a statutory rape crime will be different depending on the exact circumstances of the offense. Sentencing will vary accordingly. For example, a 25-year-old who preys on a 13-year-old would be charged with 2nd degree rape, while a 19-year-old who sleeps with a 15-year-old partner would be guilty of “4th degree sexual offense,” a lesser charge.
There is no law or statute within Maryland’s legal codes officially called “The Romeo and Juliet Law.” Rather, “Romeo and Juliet law” is a colloquial term used to describe certain statutes that many states have put in place. These offer limited protections to consensual sex acts involving one or more partners who are legally minors. In Maryland, partners must be within 4 years of one another’s age to be protected by the state’s Romeo and Juliet law. A 19-year-old adult having consensual sex with their 17-year-old partner would be protected by the Maryland Romeo and Juliet law and therefore not guilty of any crime. However, a 20-year-old sleeping with a 15-year-old would be guilty of statutory rape because the age difference does not fall within the 4-year threshold for legal protection.
There is no official code on the books titled “The Romeo and Juliet” Law in Maryland. However, the state does indeed have a legal framework in place to offer limited legal protections to consensual sexual relationships involving minors, and these rules are commonly called “Romeo and Juliet Laws.” Romeo and Juliet laws decriminalize sexual relationships between partners of a similar age that would otherwise meet the legal definition of statutory rape. Young, sexually active couples in Maryland are protected by the so-called Romeo and Juliet law if the partners’ ages are within 4 years of one another.
The age of consent in Maryland is 16, meaning that anyone aged 16 or older has the legal right to make their own decisions about sexual activity. 17 is therefore a “legal age” in Maryland, and any consensual sexual relationship involving a 17-year-old as the younger partner would not be subject to Romeo and Juliet or statutory rape laws.
Yes, it is perfectly legal for an 18-year-old to date a 17-year-old in Maryland, with or without sexual activity occurring. Not only would these partners be well within the 4-year age difference tolerance for the state’s Romeo and Juliet law, but the law would not even apply to this situation because both partners are older than 16, the age of consent in Maryland.
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