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An Overview of Rape Law

This content contains sensitive subject matter related to legal defense for crimes of a sexual nature.

Rape, a form of sexual assault, is a serious criminal sexual conduct crime that comes with severe penalties if you are convicted. Even just an allegation of rape can be life-altering, regardless of the criminal case outcome. Protecting your rights is critical if you are facing these types of charges. Talk to an attorney who understands sex offenses to defend against felony criminal charges.

If you have already been charged with some level of criminal sexual conduct in a complaint, you are already in legal jeopardy. You can face serious criminal penalties, a permanent conviction on your record that cannot be expunged, and the potential to have to register as a “sexual predatory offender.”

Also, it is essential to understand that even if you plead to a different charge that is not criminal sexual conduct crime, if that charge is contained in the original complaint, many states, like Minnesota, may require you to register even if you plead guilty to a different crime where you don’t normally have to register. In Minnesota, you must still register if the other non-registerable sex crime “arises under the same set of circumstances as the sex offense.”

For instance, in Minnesota, if you are charged with criminal sexual conduct in the first degree and a lesser crime of misdemeanor domestic assault, you may decide to plead guilty to the lesser offense of misdemeanor domestic assault. Even though, as part of your plea agreement, the prosecutor may dismiss the serious sexual assault case, you may still have to register because the behavior was part of the “same set of circumstances” as the sexual assault charge.

What Is Rape?

The current definition of rape, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), is defined as the penetration of the vagina or anus with a body part or object, including oral and digital penetration, without the victim’s consent.

The crime of rape involves non-consensual sexual intercourse that is committed by physical force, the threat of severe bodily injury, or coercion. Coercion is generally defined as the use of words or circumstances that can make the complainant reasonably fear that the actor will inflict physical harm, or it can be the use of superior size or strength by the actor that can cause a person to submit to the actor against their consent. Under the law, coercion is different than force or the threat of force because proof of coercion does not require evidence of a specific act or threat.

Rape can occur within a marriage, be carried out by either gender, and the amount or type of use of force can vary. The victim’s lack of consent is at the crux of any rape crime, date rape included, unless it is a case where the complainant is under the age of consent. In some jurisdictions, a lack of consent can include the complainant’s inability to say “no” to intercourse because they are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol or due to their lower cognitive functioning level or lack of mental capacity.

Rape can occur when the offender and the alleged victim have a pre-existing relationship (no matter the duration) or even when the offender is the victim’s spouse.

Types of Criminal Sexual Conduct Cases

Rape is a type of criminal sexual conduct case, and most states charge various levels of criminal sexual conduct based on the type of sexual contact that occurs and the level of force or coercion used. Sexual penetration by use of force or coercion without the complainant’s consent is considered the most severe charge, usually facing the harshest criminal penalties.

However, some statutes make sexual penetration without force illegal simply because the age of the complainant is under the age of consent and/or because the actor is in a “position of authority” or has a “significant relationship” to the complainant, including but not limited to a child’s stepparent or guardian.

The other levels of rape can include non-consensual contact other than sexual penetration, including the actor intentionally touching the complainant’s “intimate parts,” which in most states consists of the groin, inner thigh, buttocks, breast, or primary genital area” without the person’s consent and this can include touching these parts over the clothes.

Acquaintance Rape

Acquaintance rape occurs when the victim knows or trusts the perpetrator. Acquaintance rape is the most common form of rape in America, comprising around 80% of all cases.

Marital Rape

Marital rape is similar to acquaintance rape, with the victim being the offender’s spouse (or ex-spouse).

Date Rape

Date rape, perhaps confusingly, shares several traits with acquaintance rape, but it also involves a romantic relationship or the potential for a romantic encounter between victim and offender.

Statutory Rape

Nonforcible sexual activity involving at least one underage individual (meaning below the “age of consent“) and, typically, one or more adults is considered statutory rape. Because underage individuals cannot legally consent to sex, this act is automatically illegal. Statutory rape laws vary by state, with states setting the age of consent differently and using different names to refer to this crime.

Punishment for a Rape Conviction

There are harsh sentences for rape convictions under state law. Some states determine the punishment for a rape charge based on the severity of the crime (first-degree, second-degree, or third-degree).

State criminal laws usually consider non-statutory rape a felony charge, with some states differentiating between felony charges and misdemeanor charges in cases of statutory rape.

If you’re found guilty of first-degree rape in New York, for example, you could face a prison sentence of five to 25 years. In Texas, a state that does not differentiate between rape and statutory rape, and those convicted of rape, a second-degree felony, face two to 20 years of imprisonment. In California, a conviction for rape could mean up to eight years imprisonment and fines of up to $10,000.

In nearly all instances, a rape conviction also means registering as a sex offender. This designation is a matter of public record on your state’s sex offender registration page. Some sexual offenses require registration for life.

What If I’ve Been Wrongly Accused of Rape?

Unfortunately, false reports of rape are sometimes made. While the motivation for lying and falsely accusing someone of rape could be wildly diverse, false accusations often stem from a desire to seek revenge on the accused or from the alleged victim’s desire to cover up their own sexual activity.

Rape Shield laws exist in many states to protect the complainant from being disparaged about their past sexual history unless the complainant opens the door to the evidence coming in at a trial by putting their own sexual history at issue and if certain circumstances exist which can vary based upon the language in each state’s rape shield law.

A couple of admissibility factors for this type of evidence include when the consent of the complainant is a defense in the case, and the complainant makes their sexual history an issue, or when the prosecution’s case has evidence about semen, pregnancy or disease, and the defense is only using it to show the source of the semen, not to disparage the defendant. A court usually will only admit this type of evidence if the defense clearly shows that the exceptions to the rape shield are met, and this motion is usually determined before a jury trial by a judge outside the presence of a jury.

There are penalties under various state laws for falsely reporting that a rape occurred. However, since a rape conviction can result in serious penalties, it is crucial to consult a qualified criminal defense attorney if you have been falsely charged with rape. An experienced sex crime defense attorney will be able to examine the details of the case, look for additional evidence, and help you determine the best way to mount a defense.

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