The extensive media coverage of the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears — sister of Britney Spears and television star in her own right — has focused on the sensational while ignoring the legal story: the articles describe a technical case of statutory rape. If Aldridge was having sex with Spears at age 15 or 16, he would be subject to a variety of criminal charges. The case should bring some attention to the inconsistent prosecution of statutory rape claims around the country and a reexamination of what we should be trying to achieve in these cases.
With the exception of CNN, major news organization largely ignored the legal question in the first round of coverage on the question. There is a notion that celebrities are ageless and, even at 15 or 16, it is not surprising to find that stars are sexually active. Indeed, there is a notion (belied I suppose by Jamie Lynn’s own sister) that stars have a certain worldly maturity. Yet, there is a reason why the age of consent and the age of majority are set relatively high. At age 15 or 16, the law does not view a young person as having the cognitive or developmental maturity to make decisions of consent. This is the point of statutory rape. While consensual, one party does not have the capacity to consent.
For Aldridge, his relationship with Spears could easily be viewed as a criminal matter. It differs from state to state. Charges can be brought in any state with sexual relations occurred. Yet, the two states with the most relevance are California (where Spears works) and Louisiana (where Spears lives). In California, it is a misdemeanor to have sex with someone younger than 18 if the offender is less than three years older. Someone more than three years older could be charged with a felony. In Louisiana, where Spears lives, it is a misdemeanor for someone age 17 to 19 to have consensual sex with someone age 15 to 17 if the difference between their ages is more than two years.
In addition to statutory rape, Aldridge could be charged in federal court with a Mann Act violation. Originally calss the The United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 that act prohibits the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”. In Athanasaw v. United States (227 U.S. 326, 328) (1913), the Supreme Court extended the law beyond prostitution to include acts of “debauchery.” In Caminetti v. United States (242 U.S. 470, 484-85) (1917), it reaffirmed the broader reading of the law. Famous individuals prosecuted under the act include Chuck Berry, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Charles Manson.
There is also child molestation and other forms of abuse of a minor.
However, statutory rape appears the most obvious. All states have some form of statutory rape laws. A breakdown of the state laws can be found here
Statutory rape and related claims has long been controversial, particularly with the prosecution of teenagers. An analogous case was that of Genarlow Wilson, who was given a ten-year sentence for consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl. An honors student and gifted athlete, Wilson was preparing for college in 2005 when he was charged in Georgia with aggravated child molestation for having consensual oral sex. Though Wilson was only 17, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade and Assistant D.A. Eddie Barker secured a 10-year sentence for an act committed by thousands of teenagers every year.
There are two basic categories of cases. Sex between underage kids and sex between an adult and a child. Both have been prosecuted, though the latter is more common. This obviously turns on state definitions and where this possible offense took place. However, this is not an argument for expanded prosecution between teenagers. To the contrary, the point is that there is a troubling inconsistency in the treatment of these cases.
States like Georgia have passed “Romeo and Juliet” laws that exclude teenage lovers — a worthy reform. These laws decriminalize or lessen punishment for sex between two young people while maintaining strict penalties for sex between an adult and a minor.
There have been challenges to these laws, particularly due to their exclusion of same sex relationships. In Kansas v. Limon
for example this distinction was challenged as unconstitutional discrimination under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lawrence v. Texas — striking down criminal laws targeting homosexual relations. The law defined the exemption in the following terms: “sodomy . . . with a child who is 14 years of age but less than 16 years of age and the offender is less than 19 years of age and less than four years older than the child and the child and the offender are . . . members of the opposite sex.”
It is clear that we need to reexamine what were are trying to achieve in these statutory rape laws. When they were first passed, enforcement of morality codes was one of the purposes — even against teenagers. Now, we are primarily interested in the older predator model. Moreover, teens are now having sex at a younger age. The result is that these laws criminalize teen conduct and produce only harmful results — with little effect on a national trend.
We certainly cannot have a form of celebrity exemption where kids are prosecuted unless they can break their news on Inside Edition or People Magazine. It will be interesting what future prosecutions occur in states like California and Louisiana if Aldridge is not charged. It will be hard to drag another Wilson into court while Spears’ pregnancy is featured on every tabloid cover.