The minimum age to consent to sexual activity in New Jersey is 16 years old but nuances and gray areas abound, especially where teenage dating relationships are concerned.

Technically, children 15 and younger cannot legally consent to sex in the state. But those as young as 13 who engage in consensual acts with partners no older than 17 are protected under a provision sometimes called the "Romeo and Juliet" law.

On the flip side of things, the age of consent increases to 18 when the older person involved is in a supervisory capacity or position of authority over the younger, like a teacher, coach or employer.

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Romeo and Juliet: What's in a name?

One situation in which things get dicey, according to New Jersey criminal defense attorney Joseph Lento, is if the older participant in a "Romeo and Juliet" relationship becomes a legal adult and the younger one is still under 16.

Strictly interpreting what New Jersey has on the books, sex between these two people might be viewed as legal one day ... and illegal the next.

"They're no longer under 18, obviously, but then the younger person would be 15, not 16," Lento said. "So a concern would be if they're actually going to be in violation of the law, the older person, that is."

What teenagers don't know they don't know

"Consent" is still the key word here, as charges that can be filed range from endangering the welfare of a child to aggravated sexual assault, with placement on the Megan's Law registry upon conviction.

But when it comes to encounters between teens, Lento may not even know they are running afoul of any laws.

"These defenses or, say, explanations for lack of a different way to put things, can help justify — again for lack of a different word — relationships that may be otherwise regarded as appropriate," he said.

Underage sexting isn't sex ... but is it child porn?

Another area of uncertainty in a time dominated by electronic devices is sexting.

Lento's firm cites a wide-ranging case in North Jersey nearly a decade ago in which several teenagers faced charges for disseminating illicit images and videos of exes and other classmates.

Technically, sharing or possessing sexually explicit content involving a minor, even of oneself, constitutes child pornography under New Jersey law.

Sharing it strictly just between two individuals who are involved romantically is a thornier issue.

"I could see that potentially becoming a problem under the law in New Jersey, where it may not quite account for those kinds of situations that, for better or worse, take place all day, every day in relationships whether one's, say, underage or older," Lento said.

Know the New Jersey laws

Overall, Lento said "an ounce of prevention," in essence knowing the facts, is key, though he admits that may be easier said than done.

"Having knowledge and information in advance of taking action or doing things in an intimate relationship is going to put a person on better footing in terms of knowing what their rights and obligations are under the law," he said.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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