Under Colorado’s Romeo and Juliet law – also called “the close-in-age exemption” – minors under 15 can have consensual sex with partners less than four years older, and minors age 15 or 16 can have consensual sex with partners less than 10 years older. Otherwise, people who have consensual sex with partners under 17 – the Colorado age of consent – face criminal charges for statutory rape (CRS 18-3-402).1
What is statutory rape in Colorado?
Unless the Romeo and Juliet exemption applies, statutory rape is when a person has consensual penetrative sex with a partner age 16 or younger. This is because under Colorado law, people may not legally consent to penetrative sexual activity if they are under 17 – the state’s age of consent. (Penetrative sex includes vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, and any other sexual contact where penetration occurs.)
Example: Mary is 16 years old but looks mature for her age. She gets a fake ID and gets into a 21-and-older nightclub. Mary meets James, who is 26. Mary asks him to have sex, and he agrees. Here, James could be prosecuted for statutory rape. Under Colorado’s age of consent laws, Mary can lawfully agree to have sex with someone less than 10 years her senior. Since James is older than that, he violated CRS 18-3-402. And it makes no difference that James met Mary in a club for adults, that Mary lied about her age, or that Mary looked like an adult.
Statutory rape is prosecuted as a sexual assault charge, the same as forcible rape. It does not matter if the underage partner agreed to or initiated the sexual acts.
If the child is less than 15 – and the defendant is at least four years older – statutory rape is a class 4 felony extraordinary risk crime. The penalty carries:
- 2 to 8 years of Colorado State Prison time, and
- fines of $2,000 to $500,000, and
- registration as a Colorado sex offender
If the child is 15 or 16 – and the defendant is at least 10 years older – statutory rape is a class 1 misdemeanor extraordinary risk crime. The punishment is:
- 6 to 24 months in jail, and
- fines of $500 to $5,000
A first-time misdemeanor conviction does not require the defendant to register as a sex offender, but a second-time conviction does require sex offender registration.2
What is the close-in-age exception?
Colorado lawmakers understand that teenagers under the age of consent experiment with sexual intercourse and other penetrative sexual contact with their peers, and that this should not be a sex crime as long as all parties agree to it. Therefore, Colorado state law has a close-in-age exception to statutory rape laws where young people under 17 may have consensual sexual relationships without it being a sex offense. This exemption is also called the Romeo and Juliet law.
A child who is under 15 years of age can have sex with a person who is less than four years older. For example, a 14-year-old may have sex with a 17-year-old despite that the 14-year-old is below the age of sexual consent. This is because the older person is only three years the child’s senior.
Meanwhile, 16- and 15-year-olds may have sex with a person who is less than ten years their senior. For example, a 16-year-old may have sex with a 25-year-old person. This is because the age difference between the two is less than 10 years.
Example: Hallie is 14 and her boyfriend is 16. They decide to have sex. Even though Hallie is younger than the age of consent, Colorado’s Romeo & Juliet law permits her to consent to sex with someone less than four years older. Since her boyfriend is only two years older, the boyfriend is committing no crime.
Note that Colorado’s Romeo and Juliet laws only apply when the sex is consensual. If one person forces his/her partner to have sex, then that person could be charged with rape no matter their ages.3
How do I fight statutory rape charges?
The most effective defense to statutory rape charges is that no sexual penetration occurred, and that the victim lied about having sex. Sometimes young accusers – or their parents – lie to get the other person into trouble.
The state has the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high bar. So if the case is simply a question of he said/she said, it may be very difficult for the state to convict the defendant.
Note that it is not a defense to statutory rape charges that the defendant honestly believed the victim had reached the age of consent. It also does not matter if the victim lied about his/her age and looked like an adult. Statutory rape is a strict liability offense, so the defendant’s intent is immaterial.4
Arrested? Contact our Colorado criminal defense lawyers to discuss creating an attorney-client relationship. We have law offices in Denver, Greeley, and Colorado Springs, and we serve clients throughout the state.
- CRS 18-3-402.
- Same. CRS 16-22-103. See also People v. Chavez, (1972) 179 Colo. 316, 500 P.2d 365. See also People v. Jurado, (Colo. App. 2001) 30 P.3d 769.
- CRS 18-3-402.
- United States v. Wray, (10th Cir. 2015) 776 F.3d 1182.