Positive Justice Project Urges Rational Response to HIV Criminal Case
Beirne Roose-Snyder, 212-430-6733
New York, February 13, 2012 – Legal and public health experts are speaking out against criminal charges that have been brought against an HIV-positive man in Branson, MO in connection with an altercation with arresting officers. The man taken into custody was charged with "recklessly risking the infection of another person with HIV," a felony that can result in a sentence of up to 15 years, for allegedly biting a police officer. Missouri is one of several states with a law that allows felony prosecution of persons with HIV who bite another individual, conduct which, even when skin is broken, poses a near-zero risk of transmission of HIV.
The charges against the man stem from a June 13, 2011 incident at an apartment complex in Branson. The probable cause statement filed in the case alleges he bit a Branson police sergeant on his arm after he had previously admitted to being infected with HIV and hepatitis C. The statement said the bite did not break the skin and that police utilized a Taser "in an attempt to gain compliance" before taking him into custody.
The arrest is one in a long line of cases across the country where HIV-positive individuals are facing criminal charges and long sentences on the basis of their HIV status for consensual adult sex and conduct that poses no real risk of HIV transmission.
Members of the Positive Justice Project, a national network of 65 organizations across the country challenging the medical and ethical support for such laws, expressed dismay at the continued targeting of people with HIV for unreasonable prosecutions. "This type of case reflects widespread ignorance about the routes and actual risks of HIV transmission," said Oscar Mairena, Senior Associate for Viral Hepatitis / Policy and Legislative Affairs at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). "Persistent misinformation about how HIV is transmitted, and what it means to have HIV in 2012, is a major cause of these laws and can create a major barrier to convincing people that it is safe and necessary to get tested. These cases and these laws are based on stigma, not science, and pose a major threat to our nation's public health."
In Missouri, where the man is being charged, "acting recklessly in creating a risk of infecting another individual with HIV" is a Class B felony if HIV is not transmitted, which can result in a prison sentence of 5-15 years, and is a Class A felony, resulting in 10-30 years imprisonment, if HIV is transmitted. In one case, an HIV-positive man was convicted of two counts of exposing his sexual partners to HIV and was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in addition to being convicted as a sex offender.
"It is virtually impossible for HIV to be transmitted through biting," explained Beirne Roose-Snyder, Managing Attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in order for there to exist even a remote possibility of transmission from a bite, there would need to be severe trauma with extensive tissue tearing and damage. What occurred in this case – and in the vast majority of HIV criminal cases that involve biting – bears no resemblance to that description."
"Each time there is a new case like this that relies on outdated myths about the nature of HIV, lawmakers send the message that people with HIV are highly infectious and intend to do harm," said Michelle Lopez, community advocate and a woman living with HIV. "This message is cruel and irresponsible – it tells people who test positive that they are dangerous and is hardly likely to encourage testing, let alone disclosure of one's status."
Thirty-six U.S states and two territories have laws criminalizing HIV "exposure" (including through risk-free conduct such as spitting and biting) or nondisclosure of an individual's HIV status. Sentences imposed on people convicted of HIV-specific offenses can range in some states from 10-30 years and may include sex offender registration even in the absence of intent to transmit HIV or actual transmission.
The Positive Justice Project (PJP) is the first coordinated national effort to address HIV criminalization in the United States. HIV criminalization results in gross human rights violations, including harsh sentencing for behaviors that pose little or no risk of HIV transmission. For more information on PJP and HIV criminalization, go to http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/public/initiatives/positivejusticeproject.
The work of the Positive Justice Project is made possible by generous support from the M.A.C. AIDS Fund, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the John M. Lloyd Foundation and the Henry van Ameringen Foundation. To learn more or to join one of the PJP working groups, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.