In this decision, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that the constitutional right to privacy extends to all family members of a person with HIV and that this right was violated when police officers informed the family’s neighbors of the husband/father’s HIV infection.
While being arrested, an HIV-positive man informed the police officers that he had HIV. Later that day, while responding to an incident between the man’s wife and her neighbor, two police officers told the neighbor that the man had AIDS (it’s not clear if the police officers said “AIDS” not understanding that it is different from what the man disclosed, or if the court made the error in the opinion). The neighbors then contacted other families, the local school, and the media. As a result, the man’s family was shunned by the community. The officers claim that they informed the neighbors because they feared that the neighbors could contract AIDS through contact with the family. The man’s wife and children brought a § 1983 civil rights action against the police officers for violating their federal constitutional right to privacy.
The court found that the entire family had a constitutionally protected right to privacy regarding the man’s HIV status due to the sensitive nature of the information and the stigma associated with the disease. The government has a duty to avoid disclosure of confidential information and can only disclose such information if the government’s interest in disclosure outweighs the substantial privacy interest involved. In this case, the disclosure by the police served no societal interest, and thus could not be excused, since the court found that it was well established by 1987 that HIV could not be spread through casual contact. Furthermore, the court held that the arrested man, by voluntarily giving the information to the police officers, did not give up his right to privacy. He had informed the police officers of his HIV infection so they would be careful in searching him, because he had a hypodermic needle in his possession. Finally, the court found that the police department was liable for failure to train its police officers about AIDS and about the need to keep information about it confidential. The failure to train amounted to a “deliberate indifference” to the rights of people with HIV because the department’s failure to train its police officers was likely to result in a violation of constitutional rights.
This case is significant because it extends the constitutional right to privacy in personal information from a person with HIV to the person’s whole family. It also acknowledges that as early as 1987, it should have been common knowledge that HIV could not be spread by casual contact. Furthermore, the police department’s liability for failure to train its officers about HIV infection could potentially extend to other contexts in which government employees have a high probability of coming in contact with HIV-positive people.
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