The Supreme Court unanimously sided with a Mexican immigrant Tuesday who was going to be deported under immigration laws for having consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20 years old.
The justices said in the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the ages of the participants, the generic federal definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” requires the age of the victim to be less than 16.
The case centered on Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a Mexican citizen who was admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident in 2000. In 2009, he pleaded no contest in the Superior Court of California to a statutory rape offense — “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator,” according to court documents.
California considers anyone under the age of 18 to be a minor under the law.
But in delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said when Congress added sexual abuse of a minor to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1996 “reliable dictionaries provide evidence that the generic age” then and now “is 16.”
“Absent some special relationship of trust, consensual sexual conduct involving a younger partner who is at least 16 years of age does not qualify as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA, regardless of the age differential between the two participants,” Thomas wrote.
“We leave for another day whether the generic offense requires a particular age differential between the victim and the perpetrator, and whether the generic offense encompasses sexual intercourse involving victims over the age of 16 that is abusive because of the nature of the relationship between the participants.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch took no part in considering or deciding the case.