Last week, Maryland prosecutors dropped rape charges against two immigrant teenagers who were accused of raping a 14-year-old classmate in a bathroom at Rockville High School. “Due to lack of corroboration and substantial inconsistencies from the facts,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy explained, “the original charges cannot be sustained and prosecution of those charges is untenable.”
Almost immediately, the decision to drop the rape charges spurred substantial backlash. At least from information made public by investigators, it seemed an injustice slithered through Montgomery County unscathed, leaving only an unquenched thirst for retribution in its wake.
In looking for retribution, Marylanders should be wary of knee-jerk and anger-driven responses — such as changing Maryland’s statutory rape laws.
To convict someone of statutory rape in Maryland when the victim is 14 years-old, Maryland law requires the perpetrator be at least four years older than his victim. Neither alleged assailant at Rockville High School, despite one being 18, was a full four years older than the alleged victim.
Unable to bring a case of statutory rape, prosecutors’ job became far more difficult, as the central legal question shifted from the ages of the parties involved to the far more contentious issue of consent. Without a strong case proving a lack of consent, the prosecution declined to bring rape charges.
For some, the age difference requirement in Maryland’s statutory rape law is to blame.
It is easy to see why this case provokes such intense outrage. However, saying Maryland’s statutory rape law was the critical point of failure is astonishingly short-sighted. Although outlawing sex where, for example, at least one of the parties is under the age of 16 would indeed have made it easier to prosecute the alleged attackers in this case, the long-term consequences would breed far greater injustices than letting two potentially guilty people go free.
Statutory rape laws are based on the rationale that a person is legally incapable of consenting to sex before reaching a certain age. Integral to that rationale is a broader policy aim: to deter sexual exploitation by adults looking to take advantage of vulnerable minors. Historically, and more specifically, drafters of statutory rape laws envisaged such laws as protecting the chastity of young women against predacious older men.
Eliminating Maryland’s age difference requirement, however, would not serve this end. Instead, broadening Maryland’s statutory rape laws would endanger the very class of people it was designed to protect by criminalizing consensual sex between minors. In addition, despite society’s changing views on chastity, modern statutory rape laws still cast males as the offender — even if the respective ages of both consenting parties fall beneath the statutory minimum.
For Maryland parents with teenage sons, this should be frightening. Consider, for example, the case of Michael M. v. Superior Court, a Supreme Court case involving a 17-year-old male charged with statutory rape in California after he had consensual sex with a 16-year-old female partner. Given that the statute imposed criminal liability only on the male in such circumstances, the male defendant argued the statute constituted gender discrimination. The Supreme Court, however, rejected his argument, reasoning that since it is exclusively the female who can become pregnant, “a criminal sanction imposed solely on males thus serves to roughly ‘equalize’ the deterrents on the sexes.”
The Supreme Court’s baffling take on equality aside, most reasonable people would agree statutory rape laws are not meant to make criminals out of promiscuous teenagers. Although it is understandable that parents want to steer their children away from casual sex, that’s a conversation for the kitchen table, not the courtroom. Branding a young man a “rapist” because he had sex with a willing peer is pure lunacy.
As the legal maxim goes, hard cases make bad law. For the Rockville High School case, the age difference requirement in Maryland’s statutory rape laws functioned exactly as intended. It thwarted harmful precedent and refocused the legal question on what was genuinely in dispute: consent.
No change in the law is needed.