The Age of Consent in North Carolina and Understanding the Romeo and Juliet Law

North Carolina age of consent

If you are in a sexual relationship with someone under the age of consent, you may be at risk of being charged with statutory rape or other crimes. A conviction on these charges can lead to prison time and even a lifetime identification as a sex offender. At Coolidge Law Firm, our criminal defense attorneys are experienced in the laws that govern the age of consent. We know how to fight for your due process rights when you have been charged with statutory rape and need legal representation. In this article, we will explain the laws governing statutory rape in N.C., sexual consent, and the Romeo and Juliet exemption.

In North Carolina, sexual intercourse with a “minor” is against the law. The Federal legal age of majority in N.C. is 18 years of age for voting and other adult privileges; however, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16 years of age. This means it is illegal for an adult (someone who is 18 or older) to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 16), even if the sex is consensual. Those who break the law have committed statutory rape. 

Underage Sexual Activity

In N.C., statutory rape charges are subject to the “age of consent.” As stated above, where it pertains to sexual intercourse, the age of consent in N.C. is 16 years old, not 18. This means that once the minor reaches the age of 16, he/she may consent to vaginal intercourse (sexual intercourse). Consenting to intercourse is an adult decision; in N.C., as far as sexual intercourse is concerned, a person is considered to be an adult at 16.

Statutory rape laws are based on the assumption that minors are incapable of giving informed consent to sexual activities. When someone older than 18 has sex with someone younger than 16, even when the sex is consensual, it is illegal. If you break that law, you have committed statutory rape. Although statutory rape does not require the prosecutor to prove an assault, it is still rape. However, when sexual intercourse is forced or involves an assault, it is illegal in N.C. and prosecuted as forcible rape.

Dating an Underage Person

It is not illegal to date someone under the age of 16 in N.C. But, it is against the law to have sexual intercourse with someone who has not had their 16th birthday. So, dating someone who isn’t old enough for consent may not be advisable. It’s easy to fall into a sexual relationship that is consensual. But, even when this occurs, the older individual (the “defendant”) may be subject to an arrest and criminal prosecution for very serious felony charges. 

Does the Relationship Have to be Sexual to be Illegal?

Yes. It isn’t illegal to date someone who is not yet 16. It is only when the relationship moves to sexual intercourse that it becomes illegal. This is because N.C. considers a person who is not yet 16 to be unable to make the decision to have intercourse.

Each state sets its own age of consent laws. As noted above, the age of consent for sexual intercourse in N.C. is 16. This is lower than the federal age of majority for purposes of voting and other adult privileges, which is 18. The age of consent across the country is generally in the range of 15 to 17.

NC Romeo and Juliet law

Romeo and Juliet Exception

It’s important to note that in North Carolina, there is an exception called the  “Romeo and Juliet” exemption, named after the young lovers in Shakespeare’s play by the same name. The Romeo and Juliet exemption is intended to prevent young people who are close in age and involved in a consensual sexual relationship from being charged with statutory rape. This exemption is for a minor of any age and someone who is at least 12 years old and no more than four years older than the minor. For example, a 17-year-old who has consensual sex with a 15-year-old cannot be criminally prosecuted in N.C. 

Potential Penalties for Statutory Rape

Statutory rape is prosecuted under North Carolina’s rape and sex crime laws. Statutory rape is a felony-level sex crime. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim, and the conduct that occurred. A person convicted can face prison time of at least a year and penalties. Statutory rape of a child under the age of 13 by an adult has a punishment of 25 years in prison. 

Defenses to a Statutory Rape Charge

Statutory rape charges typically become more serious the younger the victim and the older the defendant. For example, vaginal intercourse with a child younger than 13 and an adult who is 18 or older is always a felony, and a conviction can result in at least 25 years of imprisonment. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.23 (2018).)

Mistake of Age

A common claim by defendants accused of statutory rape is that they had no reason to know that their partner was under the age of consent. Their argument is usually that the child said he or she was of age and a reasonable person would have believed it. Even if this is true, in N.C. a defendant cannot rely on a mistake of age, regardless of how reasonable it may be, to avoid conviction. Most states do not consider the mistake of age as a valid legal defense.

Statutory Rape Marital Exception

North Carolina has a marital exemption for some statutory rape crimes. The exemption allows consensual sex between a married minor and that minor’s adult spouse, even though their ages would prohibit it if they were not married. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.25, 14-27.30, 14-27.32 (2018).)  For example, if a couple is married and living in N.C., and they are 15 and 23 years old, respectively, the 23-year-old cannot be charged for having consensual sex with the 15-year-old. However, if the 23-year-old forces the 15-year-old to have sex against her will, the older person has no protection under the law, even if they are married.

The Romeo and Juliet Exception

When the couple involves two people who are minors close in age there is an exception called Romeo and Juliet. It is defined as consensual sex between a minor of any age and someone who is at least 12 years old and no more than four years older than the minor. For example, a 17-year-old who has consensual sex with a 15-year-old cannot be criminally prosecuted in N.C. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.24, 14-27.25 (2018).)

Sex Offender Registration

North Carolina state law requires that people convicted of certain crimes sexual in nature must register as sex offenders. An individual who has been convicted of specified sex offenses and offenses against children must register as a sex offender, including convictions for statutory rape of a minor.

Contact the Criminal Defense Lawyers at Coolidge Law Firm 

The consequences of being convicted of statutory rape with a minor are devastating and can affect your entire life. If you have been accused of violating North Carolina’s age of consent, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney at Coolidge Law Firm. We can evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s case against you and develop any defenses that apply to your case. Call us today at (919) 239-8448 or fill out the contact form below. We represent clients in Wake Country, including Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Apex, Holly Springs, Garner, Wendell, Wake Forest, Rolesville, and Knightdale.


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