For years in Indiana, the age at which a person could legally consent to have sex was 16.
But lawyers for young defendants accused of having sex with 14- and 15-year-olds now can pose a defense against charges of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Public Law 216 creates a legal defense, nicknamed the "Romeo and Juliet defense," against charges of sexual misconduct with a minor. The law went into effect July 1.
"The change in the law decriminalizes consensual sex among teenagers in a dating relationship if they are within four years age difference," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.
The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council supported and helped write the new defense. Executive Director Stephen J. Johnson said the change doesn't lower the age of consent.
It modifies a 1994 law that made sexual misconduct with a minor a separate offense from child molesting as a way of dealing with teenage sexuality, Johnson said.
"We did not view the new defense as a radical change in the law; rather it created what we believed was a relatively narrow defense for certain sexual acts among young people over the age which would qualify for child molestation," Johnson said.
The defense can be asserted if the person accused of having sexual contact with a 14- or 15-year-old is under 21, is no more than four years older than the alleged victim and was involved in a dating relationship with the victim at the time.
Sex with a person under 14 is still considered child molesting, regardless of the age of the perpetrator. But the new law could protect an 18-year-old from adult felony charges if he has sex with a 15-year-old girlfriend, for instance.
Landis said the law change arose from concern that the ever-widening set of crimes that force people to register as sex offenders was having unintended consequences.
"Initially, it was a narrow list of offenses" that prompted the sex offender registry requirement, Landis said. "It had to be rape, criminal deviate conduct — some forcible sex act."
Year after year, more offenses were added to the list of convictions requiring registration. As a result, some teens in consensual, dating relationships wound up with criminal convictions that required lifetime sex offender registration.
"It's debilitating," Landis said. "It affects their ability to get into school, student loans, jobs."