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What Is the Legal Age of Consent in North Carolina?

Sometimes relationships develop between individuals around the age of majority (18), but both people in the relationship may not be over the age of 18. It is vital for everyone to know the actual ages of their sexual partners to avoid incurring statutory rape charges. Sex with a minor under the age of consent, regardless of the minor’s willingness to participate, can easily lead to severe criminal charges entailing fines, punitive damages, incarceration, registration on a sex offender registry, and civil liability from the minor and his or her family.

What Are Statutory Rape Laws?

Statutory rape laws exist to prevent adults from coercing minors into sexual activity. Minor children, even physically developed ones, do not have the ability to legally consent to sexual activity until they reach the age of consent in their states. In most states including North Carolina, the legal age of consent is 16 years old. Although it is not uncommon for minors under 16 to develop personal intimate relationships with legal adults, doing so involving any sexual activity is technically illegal, regardless of the younger partner’s willingness and consent.

Generally, it is illegal for any adult to have sex with a minor under 16. However, some “close in age” exemptions may apply if the older participant is less than four years older than the minor in question. These laws exist to prevent the exploitation of minors and discourage sexually predatory behavior.

Potential Penalties for Statutory Rape

Statutory rape does not apply to forced sexual contact or rape; those incidents fall under the state’s criminal code pertaining to sexual assault crimes. Statutory rape refers to consensual sex between a person older than the age of consent and a partner younger than the age of consent. Some states differentiate cases involving minors of the same age engaging in consensual sex and most do not consider this a criminal offense.

North Carolina defines statutory rape of a child as vaginal intercourse between an adult over 18 and a child under 13. The state defines first-degree statutory rape as vaginal intercourse involving a child under the age of 12 and another child over the age of 12 if the older child is four or more years older than the younger child. The state also outlines various other charges for statutory rape and statutory sexual assault and determines severity based on the age difference between the older and younger participants.

Defenses Against Statutory Rape Charges

Only a few defenses can potentially help a person avoid statutory rape charges in North Carolina. The first line of defense would be marriage. It is possible for a minor under the age of consent to get married with parental permission, and marital sex between spouses would not be a criminal offense, even if the minor spouse was under the age of consent. However, marriage does not constitute a defense against forcible rape, regardless of the age of the younger spouse.

The second possible defense would be the state’s Romeo and Juliet clause pertaining to sex between consenting minors. For example, a 17-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old would not constitute grounds for criminal prosecution under North Carolina’s statutory rape laws. The Romeo and Juliet clause only pertains to couples within four years of age of each other, with the younger partner being no younger than 12 years old.

The final and weakest potential defense is mistaken age. The older person charged with statutory rape may claim he or she thought the victim was older than 16. The jury will assess whether this claim is believable, but even if the victim looks much older than he or she actually is, mistaken age typically will not hold up as a valid defense against statutory rape charges. Unless the defendant can prove the younger victim knowingly lied about his or her age, used a fake ID, or otherwise gave no reason for the defendant to doubt he or she was over 16, the defendant will likely face criminal charges. For more information regarding these possible defenses against a statutory rape charge, speak with a skilled criminal defense lawyer in Raleigh, NC.