What does four or more years older mean in a statututory sexual assault case?
The Superior Court has just decided the cases of Commonwealth v. Price. In Price, the court held that the defendants had not been properly convicted of Statutory Sexual Assault because they were less than four years older than the 16-year-old complainant in the case. The court held that the term “four or more years older” as used in the Statutory Sexual Assault (Statutory Rape) statute requires just that; that a defendant be four years or more older than the complainant. Here, because both defendants were actually a few hours less than four years older than the complainant, the trial court erred in finding them guilty of Statutory Rape.
The facts of Commonwealth v. Price
The facts of Price are relatively straightforward. The defendants were twin brothers who were charged with Statutory Sexual Assault for having sexual intercourse with the complainant. The complainant was born on a certain date in May 1998, at 8:16 am. The brothers were identical twins who were born on the same day and month in 1994 at 7 pm. This means that they were just a few hours less than four years older than the complainant. Both brothers admitted to having sex with the complainant when she was 14 and they were 18. Accordingly, they were charged with Statutory Sexual Assault.
Statutory Sexual Assault in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania’s Statutory Sexual Assault statute creates a number of different offenses. For purposes of this appeal, the defendants were charged with the Felony of the second degree section of the statute. That section makes it illegal for a person to have sexual intercourse with a complainant to whom the person is not married if the complainant is under the age of 16 years AND the defendant is four years older but less than eight years older than the complainant. This means that the case depended on whether the defendants were four years older or less than four years older than the complainant. If they were four or more years older than the complainant, then they would be guilty of Statutory Sexual Assault even if the complainant consented to the sexual intercourse. If they were less than four years older, then they could not be convicted of Statutory Rape.
The trial court found that because they were born on the same day, they were four years older than the complainant. The court reasoned that for purposes of defining a year, the measurements should not be reduced below days to hours. The court found that a person becomes a certain age on their birthday, so the defendants became four years or more older than the complainant when the day began. Accordingly, the trial court convicted both brothers of Statutory Sexual Assault. The defendants appealed to the Superior Court.
The Superior Court Appeal
The Superior Court recognized that the issue in the case was how to define a year for purposes of the statute. It was not disputed that the defendants were three years, 364 days, and approximately ten hours older than the complainant. The Superior Court reversed. It noted that criminal statutes must be strictly construed and that any ambiguity in a statute must be construed in favor of a criminal defendant pursuant to the Rule of Lenity.
The Pennsylvania Crimes Code does not define the meaning of the term “four years older.” However, the court noted that the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals and a previous panel of the Superior Court had interpreted four years to mean 1,461 days and that the defendants had been born 1,461 days before the complainant. Thus, if the period of time is counted in days, the defendants would be guilty. If it were counted in smaller increments like hours, minutes, or seconds, then the defendants would be innocent. Because the crimes code does not provide a method by which to measure years, the court accepted the defendants’ argument that they had to be a full 1,461 days older than the complainant. Because a day is 24 hours, they were not a full 1,461 days older than the complainant. They were 14 hours short of a full day from the age of the complainant.
The court concluded that the statute could reasonably be interpreted either way. Given the ambiguity in the statute, the court was required to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendants. Therefore, the court reversed the convictions.
Facing Criminal Chargs? We Can Help.
If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended thousands of cases in state and federal courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client who is facing criminal charges or who may be under investigation by law enforcement. We can also provide advice to anyone who is considering the merits of filing an appeal or Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. Call or text 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.