There is a long-running joke within the legal community about lawyers’ reluctance to answer any question with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, what you will often hear is, “It depends.” There’s a good reason for this. Laws are not always black and white. There are exceptions to rules and sometimes even exceptions to the exceptions. You can probably see where we’re going with this. The answer to whether it’s a crime for an adult to have sex with a 16-year-old is, well, “It depends.”
Although 16 is the “age of consent” in Washington (meaning anyone who is at least 16 years old is deemed old enough to legally consent to sex), the law does have some exceptions. While in many circumstances it is perfectly legal for an adult to have consensual sexual contact or intercourse with a 16-year-old, there are some circumstances where it is not. Most often, it comes down to the nature of the relationship between the two individuals.
Sexual Misconduct with a Minor
If an adult having sexual contact or intercourse with a 16- or 17-year-old is in a supervisory relationship with the teen, it constitutes a crime known as Sexual Misconduct with a Minor. Washington law has defined three specific circumstances that constitute this type of relationship. The thought behind these exceptions to the normal age-of-consent law is that a teenager is more prone to coercion in these types of relationships.
Abusing a Supervisory Relationship within a Significant Relationship
It is illegal to have sexual contact or intercourse with a 16- or 17-year-old if the actor is (1) not married to the teen, (2) at least 5 years older than the teen, (3) in a “significant relationship” to the teen, and (4) abusing a supervisory position within that relationship. It is also a crime for someone in this position to cause another person under the age of 18 to engage in sexual contact or intercourse with the teen.
Persons who could be charged under this section of the law include work supervisors, coaches, and church leaders who are at least 21 or 22 years old.
Foster Parent with a Foster Child
It is illegal for a foster parent to have sexual contact or intercourse with his or her 16- or 17-year-old foster child or to cause another person under the age of 18 to engage in sexual contact or intercourse with the teen.
School Employee with a Student
It is illegal for any school employee to have sexual contact or intercourse with a student between the ages of 16 and21 or to knowingly cause another person under the age of 18 to engage in this conduct with the student. Note that, unlike the other exceptions, in this one even a relationship with a student who is legally an adult could result in criminal charges. The employee must be at least five years older than the student, but it is not uncommon for charges to be filed against relatively young teachers and school employees, some of whom are in their early twenties.
What are the potential penalties?
If the allegation involves sexual contact (defined as touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person done for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desire of either party or a third party), the charge is likely to be Sexual Misconduct with a Minor in the Second Degree, a gross misdemeanor. A gross misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
If the allegation involves sexual intercourse (which includes any penetration of the vagina or anus by any body part or object as well as any contact between the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another), the charge is likely to be Sexual Misconduct with a Minor in the First Degree, a Class C felony. The maximum penalty for a Class C felony is five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Also, if you are convicted of either charge, you will be required to register as a sex offender for ten years.
No matter the nature of the charges against you, it is important to have a knowledgeable attorney who can help you navigate these serious allegations.
If you are facing charges for Sexual Misconduct with a Minor, the Marshall Defense Firm is here to help. Our experienced, skilled defense attorneys would be happy to discuss the matter with you. Please contact us at 206.826.1400 or firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation.