Jamie Lynn Spears' Pregnancy: Is It Legal?

Statutory-rape laws vary widely from state to state.

The announced pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old sister of Britney Spears and the star of Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101," opens up a wide range of complicated legal questions. Given Spears' status as a minor, what does that mean for longtime boyfriend Casey Aldridge, whom Spears reportedly met while attending church services? Depending on a number of factors, it could mean jail time for Aldridge — who, depending on the source, is either 17, 18, or 19 — but only if Spears' family decides to press charges, which, judging by the public statements made by press time, appears unlikely.

(At press time, MTV News was unable to confirm Aldridge's age definitively: Many reports — including that of OK! magazine, which broke the story — say he's 18, some say 19, his MySpace page says 17.)

Ultimately, the first question for investigators would be the "venue," or the state in which the baby was conceived. Without that information, no criminal proceedings can be initiated. According to the penal codes of the three states where Aldridge and Spears, who turned 16 in April, were most likely to have conceived the child — California, where "Zoey 101" is taped; Louisiana, where Spears lives when the show is between seasons, and where she has said she intends to raise her child; and Mississippi, where Aldridge resides — Aldridge's paternity could potentially give rise to criminal charges.

According to Sexlaws.org, the FBI defines statutory rape as non-forcible sexual intercourse with someone under the statutory age of consent in each respective state. The actual ages for these laws vary greatly from state-to-state, as do the punishments for alleged offenders. Many states do not use the term "statutory rape," simply calling it "rape" or "unlawful sexual penetration." One such state is Mississippi, where the crime is called "having carnal knowledge of a child."

MTV News consulted three legal experts — Father Lawrence Moore, associate dean of academic affairs for Loyola University's College of Law in New Orleans; University of Mississippi School of Law professor Philip Broadhead; and Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office — who noted that these laws apply to any type of sexual contact. Dating someone without sexual contact cannot be considered a form of statutory rape, and is almost never illegal in any state. All states have an "age of consent," or the age at which a person can legally consent to sexual activity and can then no longer be a victim of statutory rape.

Some states will make exceptions when the older person is also young or of a similar age, or if they marry the minor before the act of sexual intercourse or before being charged with the offense. These laws presume coercion, because a minor is legally incapable of giving consent to a sexual act.

In some states, criminal proceedings against an offender cannot be initiated unless the offended person's family presses charges. Assuming the couple are in good standing, Aldridge is probably in the clear. However, several online reports have crept up in the wake of Spears' announcement Tuesday night, claiming the couple's relationship was over; they cite Aldridge's alleged MySpace page, the headline of which reads "Me and Jamie Are Over :(." If the couple have indeed split up and the parting was less than amicable, Spears and her parents could file a formal complaint, which would set the legal wheels in motion.

In Louisiana, the age of consensual sexual intercourse is 17. The state's statutory-rape law goes into effect if the offender is 19 or older and has had sexual relations with a minor between ages 12 and 17; such offenses are considered felony crimes.

There's also a misdemeanor version of the law, which states that if the offender is between ages 17 and 19, and has sexual relations with a person who is between ages 15 and 17 with the difference in both participants' ages being at least two years, the offender could be charged with misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Those convicted face up to 10 years behind bars, with or without hard labor.

The New York Post quoted Deputy Sheriff Jimmy Travis of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, where the Spears family lives as saying that the couple broke no state laws if the child was conceived in Louisiana.

"From my preliminary investigation, she is 16 and he is 18," he said. "If, in fact, it happened in the state of Louisiana, that does not violate any criminal statutes." However, if Aldridge was 19 at the time of conception, there could be a case.

In Mississippi, the age of consent is 16 and the sentence for carnal knowledge of a minor is up to five years in jail, in addition to a $5,000 fine. This offense is committed when a person who is 17 or older engages in sexual intercourse with a minor who is at least 14 but under age 16; however, if the victim is less than 36 months younger than the offender, then no crime has been committed.

According to University of Mississippi School of Law professor Philip Broadhead, the state amended the sexual battery and rape statutes six years ago, raising the age of consent from 14 to 16.

"There are exceptions to the law," he said. "For instance, a 17-year-old has sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend — they put age ranges into the statute to lessen the penalties and in some cases do away with the penalties altogether. The bottom line is, the Mississippi legislature raised the age of consent to 16. [However,] if a 16-year-old girl has a 19-year-old partner, that's statutory rape — absolutely.

"The venue would be important as to what specific law applies, of course, but proving that would be difficult, because [Spears may not] cooperate and he has a right to remain silent," he continued. "Jurisdiction and venue are the first things you need to answer. If you can't, there's no going forward."

California's penal code is comparatively simple. It puts the age of consent at 18, and defines unlawful sexual intercourse as "an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person who is not the spouse of the perpetrator, if the person is a minor." The crime is a misdemeanor if the offender is less than three years older or three years older than the victim; someone more than three years older could be charged with a felony.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said a person is considered an adult in California when they turn 18. She wouldn't speculate as to Aldridge's criminal culpability, reiterating what Broadhead said about the site of the alleged offense.

"It doesn't make any difference if [Spears] works [in California], it's where the sex occurred," she said. "I don't know where the child was conceived and I'm not sure what the circumstances are. The law is clear."

(Head here for fans' and celebrities' reactions to Jamie Lynn's pregnancy, and for an update on Lynne Spears' parenting book.)

Do you think Jamie Lynn is setting a poor example for her fans? Has she damaged her career? Share your thoughts below.

(Note: A previous edition of this article contained an unattributed quote from Sexlaws.org. MTV News deeply regrets the error.)

[This story was originally published on 12.20.2007 at 4:47 p.m. ET]