Trial Attorney Erred in Allowing Rhoades to Enter a Guilty Plea Unsupported by Facts
“Today we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV when an infected person engages in protected anal sex with another person or unprotected oral sex, regardless of the infected person’s viral load.”
In a decision rejecting criminal liability based on assumptions rather than facts about individuals living with HIV, the Iowa Supreme Court today overturned the conviction of Nick Rhoades, a man living with HIV who was sentenced to 25 years in prison and registration as a sex offender for a consensual sexual encounter. In reversing Rhoades’ conviction and sending the case back to the trial court, the court specifically recognized that court rulings involving HIV must be rooted in demonstrated fact, not outdated assumptions about an individual’s ability, let alone intention, to transmit HIV.
Five years ago, Rhoades was convicted under Iowa’s HIV criminalization law for having sex with Adam Plendl. When Plendl learned that Rhoades might be HIV positive he reported it to police. At the time, Rhoades had a low viral load and took measures to reduce any small risk of transmission, and in fact Plendl remained HIV negative. But under advice from his trial lawyer, Rhoades pleaded guilty to the charge and received the maximum sentence. The trial judge later granted a motion allowing Rhoades’ release after serving approximately one year in prison, and placed him on probation for five years.
In 2010, Rhoades filed a petition in the district court for post-conviction relief arguing that his attorney did not inform him of the specifics of the law, allowing him to plead guilty to charges that were not supported by the actual events and facts. The petition was denied and Rhoades appealed to the state supreme court. Lambda Legal joined forces with Rhoades’ appellate attorneys, and The Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP) took the lead with the HIV Law Project in drafting a friend-of-the-court brief on the science of HIV treatment and transmission. The brief supporting Rhoades’ appeal was filed on behalf of CHLP, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), and the HIV Law Project.
In its ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the criminal law required that a defendant “intentionally expose” another person to HIV. The court noted that the fact that HIV primarily is transmitted through sexual intercourse and contact with blood, semen or vaginal fluid is not a legally acceptable substitute for the facts necessary to say that a particular individual acted with the intent to expose someone to HIV in a manner that actually posed a real risk of HIV transmission.
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling allows the prosecution another opportunity to establish a factual basis for the charges against Rhoades, it is unlikely that the state will be able to meet the standard now set by the court’s opinion.