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A closer look at Colorado's sexual assault law impacting teens

Colorado has a sex assault law that's raising a lot of questions because it focuses on 15 and 16-year-olds.

DENVER — A deputy in Washington County, Colo. pleaded guilty to misdemeanors after a teenager said she had sex with him multiple times.

Jon Hart, who was let go from the Washington County Sheriff's Department in October 2018, was originally charged with sexual assault on a child in a position of trust - a felony. He pleaded guilty to first-degree official misconduct and a misdemeanor-grade sexual assault charge in August.

The specifics of the case are unknown because of a gag order, but Hart was able to plead guilty to lesser charges because of the way Colorado law looks at sexual relationships with 15 and 16-year-olds.

The law has been around for decades, according to Amanda Gall, a sex assault resource prosecutor with the Colorado District Attorney's council. 

RELATED: Deputy had sex with underage girl in patrol vehicle, affidavit says

In Colorado, if the victim is under 15 and a suspect is at least four years older, that suspect can be charged with a felony. But if the victim is 15 or 16, and there's a more than 10-year age difference, then the suspect could be charged with a misdemeanor-level crime. 

Charges can escalate to felony status, no matter what the age, if the suspect was in a position of trust, if there was rape, or if the victim was drugged.

The law allows for 15 or 16-year-olds in Colorado to be in a consensual relationship with someone less than 10 years older than them without anyone getting in trouble.

"We often refer to these as the Romeo and Juliet exception," Gall said. "Most states have them." 

She said the law's intention is to not to criminalize close-in-age consensual relationships. 

"We really want to criminalize predatory, non-consensual conduct and people who are targeting children," Gall said.

"The laws try to draw that narrow exception as children get older, when they are of similar age and maturity to someone else, they do have the capacity to consent."

She said knows this is a highly emotional issue, but the law has to draw a line somewhere, and the state treats those teenagers differently because of maturity. 

But it also presents the question of whether the law is doing enough.

"I think in the era of the 'Me Too' movement, in recent years, we've given more intentional thought to accountability around sexual offense, she said. "That law has been on the book for some time. It's a legitimate question, is this a significant enough punishment?"

As to why lawmakers thought a misdemeanor was fitting, and a 10-year age gap was the legal cutoff, that answer sits with legislators who passed this bill decades ago, according to Gall.

State Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) said it's on her radar. 

"I think it's an interesting thing to bring up for the general assembly," Herod said. 

"I do think there is a question [of] when a young person can consent, when it is a relationship that crosses the line, and when there is a power differential that is being utilized to coerce a sexual relationship."

Herod helped pass a new law that makes unlawful sexual contact involving a law enforcement officer a felony. It went into effect in July.

Another law regarding sexual text messages went into effect in 2019, as well. The new rule closed a loophole that allowed adults to send sexually explicit texts to 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, as long as prosecutors couldn't find pictures.

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