Shakespeare’s Best Defense – Florida’s Romeo and Juliet Law

August 4, 2022 Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

It’s Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy for a reason: doomed love. When an individual over the age of 18 has had sexual relations with a minor, it may feel like the love is doomed due to Florida’s strict laws for sex crimes.

Some people may use the old saying of “age is just a number,” but it is in fact much more serious than that when dealing with the law. Young love can teeter on the edge of illegal love, and although someone may think they’ve met their soulmate, the reality is that if the person is a minor, they could end up in serious trouble.

Fines, imprisonment, and lifetime registration on the sex offender’s list are all possible outcomes of getting convicted of a sex crime. It doesn’t matter how much the two individuals claim to love each other, the law is the law. However, Florida does have one specific law in place to protect couples who are within a certain age range.

The law is referred to as “Romeo and Juliet,” and we will cover all of the details along with some example cases.

Age of Consent in Florida

The age of consent in Florida is 18 years old. If an individual violates the age of consent by having sexual encounters with someone under the age of 18, they can face the following charges:

Lewd and Lascivious Conduct

 A person who touches a minor younger than 16 years old in a sexual manner, or solicits them to engage in any type of sexual touching is committing a lewd or lascivious act under the law. If the person accused of committing this offense is 18 or older, they face a second-degree felony with penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison. However, if the person accused is under 18 years old then the penalty for this charge is a third-degree felony, resulting in up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Lewd and Lascivious Molestation

A person who intentionally touches the chest, butt, genitals, or the genital area of a minor’s body (whether over or under clothes) is committing lewd or lascivious molestation. If the accused is 18 or older, and the minor is under 12 years old, then this offense is a life felony punishable by life in prison or death. If the accused is less than 18 years old and the minor is less than 12 years old, or if the accused is over 18 and the minor was over the age of 12 but younger than 16, both of these circumstances are considered second-degree felonies. The penalty for a second-degree felony charge is up to a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison.

Unlawful Sexual Activity with Certain Minors

A defendant that is 24 or older who has consensual sex with a minor who is 16 or 17 years old commits a second-degree felony, which is punishable with up to a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison.

Sex Offender Registration

Along with the threat of expensive fines and imprisonment, there is also the State law’s requirement for any defendant convicted of a sex crime to register as a sex offender. This has long-term effects that may prevent the defendant from finding a job, a place to live, or dealing with the stigma of being placed on the sex offender list.

While it may seem like there is no hope if you have been charged with a sex crime involving a minor, Florida has one specific loophole which is referred to as the “Romeo and Juliet” law.

What is the Romeo and Juliet Law?

The Romeo and Juliet law was passed in 2007 after being proposed at the Legislative Session by the members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The idea for the law came after concern for high school students who were being labeled as sex offenders after participating in consensual sexual acts.

Under Florida Statute section 943.04354 the law referred to as “Romeo and Juliet” allows a defendant to file a motion for the removal of the requirement to register as a sexual predator that is the typical requirement after getting charged for breaking the age of consent.

The committee proposed the law after agreeing that the consequences were too harsh depending on the age and circumstance of the offense. When an individual is charged with a sex crime related to the age of consent, the penalties are severe. Along with fines, potential jail time, and registering as a sexual predator, the stigma carried from having a sex offender classification lasts a lifetime. There was never a distinction between offenders who had caused harm to underage children, or who had consensual sex with a partner who was not yet of age. The issue here was clear to the committee that helped create it into law.  

How Does the Romeo and Juliet Law Work?

The Romeo and Juliet law was created to protect young adults from ending up on the sexual predator list who have engaged in sexual contact with a partner who is below the age of consent in Florida. In order for the law to be applicable, the following criteria must be met:

  • The alleged “victim” in question must be between the age of 14 and 17 years old.
  • The defendant must not be over four years older than the victim (Important note: 4 years is defined as 1,460 days. So if the age gap is even one day over that amount, then the law would not apply.)
  • The alleged “victim” consented to the sexual activity.
  • The defendant has no prior convictions for any sex crimes.

One thing to note is that the Romeo and Juliet law does not condone nor legalize any type of sexual activity. It also does not guarantee that defendant will be removed from the sex offender registry. Even if the defendant has met all the requirements, the only thing that the law guarantees is that they can petition it in court. The final decision will then fall onto the judge.

Despite the law being passed in 2007, it can still be applied to defendants who had cases prior. If the defendant meets the requirements for Romero and Juliet, then they have eligibility to petition under the law.

The law’s purpose is to protect defendants who fit the specific criteria. By using the Romeo and Juliet law, a defendant taken to court for sexual conduct can:

  • Prevent having to register on the sex offender list
  • Reduce their fines
  • Prevent the prosecution from filing charges
  • Expunge their record after serving their sentence

Example Cases for Romeo and Juliet Law

The following is a list of potential scenarios to determine if they would fall under the Romeo and Juliet law:

  1. Covered under Romeo and Juliet – Two 15-year-olds who have both consented to have sex or engage in sexual activity (does not have to be in a relationship).
  2. Not covered under Romeo and Juliet – An 18-year-old and a 14-year-old have consensual sex, but the age gap is over four years (exceeding the exact number of 1,460 days).
  3. Covered under Romeo and Juliet – an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old have consensual sex. Important to note that under Florida Statute 794.05, the defendant could be charged with statutory rape since the law states it is illegal to have sexual activity with a minor under 16. However, the defendant could use the Romeo and Juliet law (if all requirements are met) to have the prosecutors drop the charges, lower the fines, and potentially prevent them from registering on the sex offender list.

Potential Issues with the Law

Although the Romeo and Juliet law is meant to help young teens who have been in consensual relationships, there is a fine line when it comes to the requirements. The age difference requirement is extremely strict, which means there is no room for any unique circumstances. There have been cases where an individual has been off by just days and was still not able to petition under the Romeo and Juliet law.

In one example case titled State v. Welch, the defendant was slightly older than four years than his girlfriend. When he was 18 and his girlfriend was only 14, he got her pregnant. Although the two were in a relationship, the exact age difference between the two was four years, two months, and twenty days.

Due to the extended age difference, the defendant was charged with a second-degree felony for lewd and lascivious battery on a woman under the age of 16. The defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years of probation, along with registering as a sex offender. The defendant later tried to use Romeo and Juliet to remove the registered classification but was still denied as he did not qualify.

In another case, Kaitlyn Hunt was 18 when she was expelled from her Florida high school for having a relationship with a minor. Hunt was in a relationship with one of her basketball teammates who was only 14 at the time. The 14-year-old’s parents found out about the relationship and the sexual acts that the two took part in and called the authorities. Hunt was charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery to a child between 12 and 16 years of age.

Since the age gap was over four years, Kaitlyn could not use the Romeo and Juliet law in her defense. Hunt ended up agreeing to a plea deal for two counts of misdemeanor battery and one count of felony interference with child custody, which resulted in serving three years of probation and 150 hours of community service. Luckily, she did not have to register as a sex offender.

Considering that the circumstances differ for each case, the best way to build a strong defense is to work with a Florida sex crime defense attorney in your area.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a sex crime, it is imperative that you seek out the help of a skilled attorney. If the alleged victim in question is a minor, the penalties for a sex crime are even more severe. Along with paying expensive fines and potentially going to prison, you would face a lifelong registration on the sex offender’s list. To see whether or not you are eligible to use the Romeo and Juliet law as a defense in your case, call Pumphrey Law Firm. Don Pumphrey and his team have represented clients all across Florida and will work tirelessly to earn your freedom. Call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today for a free consultation.

Written by Karissa Key

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