Miami Defense Lawyer on Underage Sex Charges in Florida

January 6, 2009 by David S. Seltzer

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Jan. 3 that a former teacher in Coral Springs has been jailed for having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student. The teacher, who is 41, is accused of having a consensual sexual relationship with the girl that lasted more than a year. In fact, both the teacher and the student had been questioned in late 2007 and early 2008 about their relationship, but both denied any impropriety. The teacher, whose South Florida criminal defense attorney wasn’t questioned by the paper, has been jailed on five counts of sexual battery.

As a Fort Lauderdale defense attorney myself, I thought this was a good example of how confusing Florida sex crime laws can be. Florida law does not exactly discuss rape; what could be charged as rape elsewhere might be called sexual battery here. That includes statutory rape -- sexual conduct with a consenting person who is nonetheless too young to legally consent. In many other states, sexual battery is unwanted sexual touching that doesn’t meet the definition of rape. Perhaps most importantly in the present case, Florida’s sexual battery law specifically prohibits sexual relationships between someone under 18 and someone who is “in a position of familial or custodial authority” over the younger person.

Furthermore, our age cutoffs are complex. In general, any sexual conduct with someone under age 15 is illegal, and any non-consensual sexual contact with someone of any age is illegal. And of course, a consensual relationship between two people age 18 or over is not a crime. However, if the younger person in a consenting relationship is 16 or 17, the conduct is legal if and only if the older person is under the age of 24. Furthermore, age is not relevant if both parties are under 16. That is, a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old could both be criminally charged for having a sexual relationship with one another. If convicted, they could be required to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives, unless they petition successfully for removal under Florida's "Romeo and Juliet" law.

As you can see, Florida law on sex-related offenses can be confusing. In high-profile cases, this is complicated by the fact that many offenders are convicted in the “court of public opinion” before they ever see the inside of a courtroom. As a criminal defense lawyer in South Florida, I cannot stress enough how important it is to get an attorney early in the process to help avoid the embarrassment and very real damage a sex charge, however unfounded, can cause to clients’ cases and lives.