In Washington, the age of consent for participation in sexual activity is 16 years old. Children under the age of 16 cannot give legal consent to sexual activity. Even if they appear to agree to have sex, by law, they cannot give consent. Once an individual reaches the age of 16, they can legally consent to sexual activity with a peer or an adult who is 18 or older. There are several exceptions to this rule, discussed below.
Washington’s age of consent laws are pertinent to both heterosexual and homosexual activity.
According to Washington law, “consent” means that at the time of sexual intercourse or sexual contact, actual words or conduct indicate a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact.
What Are the Exceptions to the Age of Consent Rule in Washington?
There are several exceptions where 16-year-olds cannot consent to sexual activity. These are as follows:
- When sexual activity occurs between a foster parent and a foster child, if this type of sexual activity occurs, the age of consent is bumped up to 18. Thus, a foster child would have to be 18 to avoid the foster parent violating the age of consent law.
- When sexual activity occurs between a teacher (or school administration employee) and a student, in this case, the Supreme Court of the state of Washington has ruled that this law applies regarding students up to the age of 21. Therefore, a teacher who engages in sexual activity with a student under 21 violates this law.
- When sexual activity occurs between two parties with a “significant relationship,” the older person is at least 60 months (5 years) older than the younger person, and the older person abuses the relationship to bring about the sexual activity. In a “significant relationship,” the older person is someone who:
- Takes the responsibility, as a professional or as a volunteer, for providing education, health, welfare, or recreational activities for minors;
- As part of their job, they supervise minors; and
- As part of their job, they care for the elderly and vulnerable.
What Is the “Close in Age” Exemption?
Many states have laws allowing minors to consent to sexual activity with a person who is close in age to them, although they are below the age of consent. These laws are often referred to as “Romeo and Juliet” laws, which state that if one partner to the sexual activity is below the age of consent, but the partners are quite close in age, an exception is made to the law.
Washington does not have a “Romeo and Juliet” law, so it is unlawful for someone under the age of 16 to engage in sexual activity with someone even slightly older. For example, if one person who is two months shy of 16 engages in sexual activity with someone who has been 16 for two months, this technically violates the law.
There is one exception to this. The parties, if close in age, may lawfully engage in sexual activity if they are married. In Washington, generally, you must be at least 17 years old to get married – 18 years old without parental consent – but minors younger than 17 can get married by petitioning a court for “special circumstances.” While the statute does not say what these “special circumstances” are, typically, they include pregnancy or childbirth.
Under the consent-by-marriage laws, if
- The younger person is older than 14 but younger than 16 (i.e., 15 years old); they may lawfully engage in sexual activity with their spouse if the spouse is less than 48 months older.
- The younger person is older than 12 but younger than 14 (i.e., 13 years old); they may lawfully engage in sexual activity with their spouse if the spouse is less than 36 months older.
- The younger person is younger than 12, and they may lawfully engage in sexual activity with their spouse, as long as the spouse is less than 24 months older.
As you can see from above, one requirement for the close-in-age exemption is that the individuals involved are married. If you are not legally married to the youth and engage in sexual activity, you will not be protected by any close-in-age exemption.
What Are Washington’s Penalties for Violating the Age of Consent?
There are severe penalties for those who violate Washington’s age of consent laws. Several crimes can be charged, all of which are, or can be charged as, felonies (that is, crimes for which the minimum punishment is one year in jail or prison). In addition to prison time, a felony conviction can result in loss of:
- Voting rights
- The ability to serve on a jury
- Child custody and visitation
- Public benefits access, such as food stamps
- Retaining or renewing professional licenses
- Eligibility to obtain federal student loans
- The ability to purchase or own firearms
In addition, the defendant may be required to register as a sex offender, often for the rest of their life.
Those under the age of 16 are children of the law. If they have engaged in sexual activity with someone not their spouse and does not meet the close age requirement, the older person is guilty of “rape of a child.” Serious jail time and monetary fines are the penalties for these crimes.
Someone with inappropriate sex with a minor can be charged with “child molestation.” There are three degrees of severity for child molestation. Punishments can range from 5 years to life in prison and a fine of $10,000 to $50,000. Each degree of severity is classified as a felony, which means a successful conviction can result in lifelong changes.
There are also three degrees of “rape of a child,” which can result in prison time from a minimum of 5 years up to life in prison and a fine of $10,000 to $50,000. In these situations, both first and second-degree rape of a child is considered a class A felony and have similar levels of punishment. The difference between first and second degree is the circumstances of the crime.
Finally, there is “sexual misconduct with a minor,” which is either a low-grade felony or a gross misdemeanor. It can be punished by 1 to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 to $10,000 fine.
The severity of the charge is not always easy to determine before the prosecutor formally charges the defendant. Once the exact charge is known, predicting what sort of penalty or punishment may be faced becomes possible.
Should I Consult an Attorney If I Violated the Age of Consent in Washington State?
If you have been accused of statutory rape (i.e., inappropriate sex with a minor) or if you or your child are a victim of a violation of the laws as described above, a criminal defense attorney may be able to assist you.
An experienced Washington criminal defense lawyer can help you either to deal with the charges you are facing or seek a legal remedy for the abuse you or your child has suffered.