Wednesday, November 16, 2016

HB 331 Equalization of Romeo and Juliet and Consent Education

Rep. Mary González (D-Clint) on Monday refiled her Romeo and Juliet legislation with some updates not included in her previous versions of the bill.

It is a felony in Texas to engage in sexual contact with a person under the age of 17. However the law creates an “out” in situations where the contact was consensual, the parties involved are over the age of 14, the parties are within three years of each other’s age and are of the opposite sex - called the "Romeo and Juliet defense." This is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults may wish they hadn’t made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time. Those decisions should be the concern of parents, not a matter for the police. This “out” does not exist for teen sweethearts who are dating someone of the same sex creating a risk that a teenager may be sent to prison and forced to register as a sex offender for becoming physical with their sweetheart.

A similar inequity in the law in Kansas was found unconstitutional in 2005.

HB 331 equalizes the defense, places in statute the existing practice of not reporting teen relationships that fall under the defense to the police, and requires the Texas Education Agency to make curriculum on consent available to school districts. The bill would not require the school districts to use the curriculum. The provisions clarifying the duty to report and creating consent curriculum have not been included in previous versions of the bill.

González has filed Romeo and Juliet equalization legislation every session since she was first elected in 2012. Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed it prior to that. González successfully navigated the bill out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in both 2013 and in 2015 when it passed committee unanimously. It received a vote on the House floor in 2015 but was defeated 51 to 79.

When the bill went up for a vote last session Rep. Ken Sheets (R-Dallas) amended it to include a provision that removed the availability of the Romeo and Juliet Defense if the minor was given alcohol or other drugs that made them unable to physically resist sexual assault. That amendment is redundant because mental impairment already precludes the ability to consent (a component of the defense) whether or not the alleged victim physically resists, but one wonders why the amendment, which González accepted on the floor, was not included in this new draft.

HB 331 will likely be referred to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee which will likely be half first-term members who didn't vote on this the first time around. So there's no guarantee it will pass committee the way it has the two previous sessions. But González is an extraordinary adept member and has a real talent for navigating her agenda through the process so I am very hopeful.