Regardless of the circumstance, sexual assault is one of the most grievous offenses one person can commit against another. In all 50 states, sexual assault and other sex crimes are punished more severely than most other criminal offenses.
There is a bizarre distinction in Texas law, however, which calls for enhanced penalties if the defendant is married and commits the sexual assault against someone other than their spouse.
This law was recently upheld in Texas courts when a man was convicted for statutory sexual assault after having sex with his son’s friend (who was under the age of 16). His charges were elevated to a first-degree felony…because he was married.
Let’s take a look at how this case played out, and how it might affect future defendants facing sexual assault charges in Texas.
The Case: A Married Man and An Underage Girl in Texas
Generally, sexual assault is charged and sentenced as a second-degree felony, but this Texas defendant was hit with a felony in the first degree simply because he was married at the time of the offense.
His defense team appealed this decision to an appellate court. The appellate court ruled there was no rational basis for enhanced sentencing based on the defendant’s marital status.
However, the original criminal court appealed the new decision, which essentially forced the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court for state criminal cases.
The high court upheld the original decision to convict the man of a first-degree felony. They argued that a married person could be perceived by children as being a “safe haven” or a source of “stability.” Further, this perceived trust could be used to groom, and then sexually abuse a child.
Next, let’s review how Texas defines, sentences and penalizes sexual assault, and how these charges could be affected by the defendant’s marital status.
Texas Sexual Assault Defined
Texas defines sexual assault as one of three acts committed either non-consensually or in contexts in which the victim is unable to give consent:
- Sexual penetration of the victim with the defendant’s sex organ or another object
- Causing the victim’s sexual organs to penetrate either the defendant or a third party
- Oral sexual contact of any kind
“Non-consensual” refers to sexual contact by physical force or other means of coercion.
When a victim is unable to give consent, the act is still considered sexual assault even if it was not forcible. These are scenarios in which a victim is legally identified as being unable to give consent:
- The victim is severely intoxicated and unable to resist sexual contact or incapable of understanding and consenting to sexual conduct
- A profound intellectual disability prevents it
- When a minor child is under 14 years old, or under 18 and at least five years younger than the defendant
- Any time a victim is the defendant’s patient in a health care setting
Charges may be elevated to aggravated sexual assault when an offender inflicts severe bodily injury or attempts murder — or even threatens the victim in a way which causes fear of kidnapping, harm, injury, or death.
If the defendant employed the aid of a co-conspirator or a narcotic like Rohypnol (also known as the “date rape drug”) or Ketamine, they will likely face enhanced charges, as well.
Additionally, any time a victim is less than 14 years old or considered elderly or disabled, one can expect elevated charges and enhanced penalties.
Texas Sexual Assault Sentencing and Penalties
As described, sexual assault is typically classified as a second-degree felony, punishable by 2-20 years in state prison and a fine up to $10,000. A conviction also carries the requirement for sex offender registration after release.
Aggravated sexual assault a felony in the first degree, carrying a sentence of 5-99 years in state prison and a $10,000-maximum fine. The offense also carries mandatory sex offender registration. This enhancement applies if the defendant is married, as we discussed above.
Although sex offender registration can be lifted in some cases, it’s less likely for severe sex crimes such as sexual assault.
Sexual Assault and Marriage in Texas
Texas is unique in its enhancement for married defendants. Interestingly, the enhancement does not apply if the defendant is married to the victim, commonly referred to as marital rape.
It’s likely that this law will again be challenged in future cases, and may ultimately be revised by the state legislature.
In the meantime, we can plan for this unusual enhancement to apply in sexual assault cases involving a married defendant.
Married or not, sexual assault is a serious criminal offense met with severe consequences. If you’re facing sexual assault charges, it’s imperative to be proactive and fight back to beat or reduce the charges against you.
About the Author:
Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU, and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth, making sure they receive the strongest possible defense when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.