Monday, August 16, 2010

16 Will Get You 20!

The colloquial phrase "sixteen will get you twenty" is a common exclamation expressing the widespread awareness of statutory rape laws and the strict liability aspect of the offense.  There is no means rea (evil mind requirement) for statutory rape and there is no mistake of fact ("but I thought she was 19") defense.

Appellant Mark Fleming in the 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) challenged the strict liability nature of Texas' statutory rape offense (section 22.021(a)(1)(B)(iii) of the Texas Penal Code), arguing that the lack of a means rea requirement violated his rights under the federal due process and Texas due course of law provisions.
Fleming argues that the absence of a mens rea or mistake-of-age component to [Texas' statutory rape provision] is a wrongful government action irrespective of the procedure in place to guarantee fairness.
In considering his argument, the Court conducted somewhat of a survey of many jurisdictions across the country.  Mentioned in the opinion to support the notion that statutory rape (strict liability) laws are not dead in America were cites to cases from California, Wisconsin, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, Rhode Island, Missouri, Nebraska, Michigan, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Utah, all upholding a similar provision.  It appears the Court went to such lengths to cite cases from other states in order to refute the idea that
the lack of a mental culpability component offends 'principle[s] of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental'
and thereby avoid application of "strict scrutiny" to Appellant's constitutional claim.  With apparent national support, the Court thus held:
With these decisions and the backdrop of the majority rule in this nation regarding statutory rape in mind, we conclude that there is no fundamental right that a State is required to include a mens rea component or a mistake-of-age defense in a statutory rape statute. Thus, section 22.021 only needs to serve a legitimate state purpose to be constitutional against the backdrop of substantive due process. Strict liability regarding the age of the minor furthers the legitimate government interest in protecting children from sexual abuse by placing the risk of mistake on the adult actor.

Although sound reasons might be advanced on either side of the argument of whether a mens rea component should exist or whether a mistake-of-age defense should exist in section 22.021, determining the line that separates what is criminal from what is not lies peculiarly within the sphere of legislative discretion—especially,as here, where no fundamental right is at question.
So, in case you were still wondering, "16 will still get you 20!"