February 19, 2015 – Today, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, affirmed a lower court ruling reducing charges brought by the District Attorney’s Office in Onondaga County, New York, against a young Black man living with HIV for allegedly engaging in consensual sex without disclosing his HIV status to his sex partner.
In this case, People v. Williams, the prosecution attempted to charge the defendant with reckless endangerment in the first degree – a felony punishable by up to 7 years in prison. Finding that the defendant’s alleged conduct did not create a grave risk of death, the trial court reduced the prosecution’s proposed felony charge to second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor. An appellate court affirmed the reduction. Undeterred, the prosecution appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the defendant today.
“This is a victory for the defendant and for all people living with HIV,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, Legal Director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP), which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case. "Far too often criminal charges are based on stereotypes and misconceptions instead of current medical knowledge about HIV. Prosecution should not hinge on uninformed beliefs and policies rooted in ignorance about the routes, risks, and consequences of HIV transmission," added Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal.
The New York Court of Appeals found that the defendant’s consensual sex did not meet the legal standards for the more serious charge. The decision noted: “Here, there is no evidence that defendant exposed the victim to the risk of HIV infection out of any malevolent desire for the victim to contract the virus, or that he was utterly indifferent to the victim's fate.”
"When an HIV diagnosis can trigger first-degree reckless endangerment charges, the only behavior likely to be deterred is getting tested and into treatment. Individuals, and the communities where they live, are at greater risk of disease when the law and rational public health approaches are at odds," said Terrance Moore, Director of Policy and Health Equity at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), an organization that joined CHLP’s brief.
CHLP’s brief was filed on behalf of medical, public health, and community organizations, including NASTAD; Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc. (NBLCA); Latino Commission on AIDS; Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research & Treatment (SMART); and Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum’s Health and Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT) Program.
The case is now expected to return to the trial court for further proceedings on the lesser charge.