Teenagers who engage in consensual sexual relations, however, rarely come to mind when thinking of what constitutes a sex offender. Until last September, teenagers or young adults who had such a relationship, usually with their high school boyfriend or girlfriend, and were then convicted of the related sex crimes were required to register as sex offenders.
Texas’ Former Law
Under Texas’ former law, if two teenagers engaged in consensual sexual relations and one of the teens was 17 or older and more than 3 years older than their partner, then the older partner could be charged in criminal court with statutory rape. If convicted, the older teen would be required under the law to register as a sex offender for life.
Romeo and Juliet Law
In Texas, a new law took effect on September 1, 2011, that prevents teenagers and young adults who engage in consensual sexual relations with a teenager under the age of 17 from being labeled as sex offenders. Ofter referred to as a "Romeo and Juliet" law, this new law is designed to exempt teenagers and young adults from having to register as sex offenders and being labeled as such just because their consenting partner is under the age of 17.
This exemption only applies if there is no more than a 4 year age difference between the two young people and if the consensual sexual relations are between a teenager or young adult over the age of 17 and a teenager under the age of 17. Additionally, for the new law to apply, the purported "victim" of the sexual encounter must be at least 15 years of age.
Significantly, this new Romeo and Juliet law will not prevent the adult individual from facing prosecution for an underlying crime such as sexual assault of a child, but it does exempt the accused from registering as a sex offender.
Additionally, the new law allows people already required to register as sex offenders as a result of consensual sexual encounters with teenagers under the age of 17 under the former law to petition courts to review their cases for de-registration. Judges will hold hearings to review the testimony and evidence of the cases against the petitioners to determine whether the sexual relations between the "victim" and petitioner were consensual. The judges will also determine if the petitioner is a "threat" to public safety and whether it is in the best interests of the "victim" and of justice. If the judges so determines that the facts allow for it, petitioners will be allowed to de-register and to be exempt from future sex offender registration requirements.
For young people already required to register as sex offenders following consensual sexual encounters with teenagers under 17-years-old under the previous law, the new law permits them to petition courts to review their cases. To determine whether the relationship between the petitioner and the “victim” was consensual, courts will hold hearings to review the testimony and evidence of the cases against the petitioners. Also, courts will determine if the petitioner is a “threat” to the public; if not, and if the facts of the cases allow, petitioners will be exempt from future sex offender registration requirements.
How the Law Changed
Introduced by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Rep. Todd Smith (R-Euless), the Romeo and Juliet law was signed by the governor and enacted after its second introduction to the Texas Legislature. A similar bill passed both houses of the Texas Legislature in 2009 but was vetoed by Governor Rick Perry because he claimed that it did not "adequately protect young victims" because it had a lower threshold age of 13 for the purported victim.
The intention of sex offender registries is mainly to keep the public and local authorities aware of the locations of sexual predators whom the state believes may pose a threat to the public -- the registries are not intended to encompass teenagers and who engage in consensual sex.
The Romeo and Juliet law is meant to distinguish between teenagers who made a mistake and actual sexual predators.
Those labeled as sex offenders, including teenagers, could face a lifetime of sex offender registration and many other collateral consequences, such as difficulty in finding good employment, housing, negative social stigmas and being unable to attend their children's church or to spend time with young family members.
Therefore, the new Romeo and Juliet law in Texas provides an opportunity for teenagers and young adults facing the possibility of or who are already forced to register as sex offenders an opportunity for a productive future. It is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney about petitioning for a case review and possibly having the sex offender registration requirement removed if you or a family member has already been required to register as a sex offender for engaging in sexual relations with a partner under age 17 and may fit the requirements of the new law.
Houston Criminal Attorney James Sullivan represents adults and juveniles accused of sex offenses. He has successfully petitioned juvenile clients to be allowed to de-register from the sex offender registry and looks forward to helping adult clients do the same under the new law. You can call James Sullivan at 281-546-6428 for a free consultation.