HIV Criminal Law Reform in Missouri Retains Felony Punishments for Exposure and Continues to Target Sex Workers and Incarcerated PLHIV

An omnibus crime bill that recently became law in Missouri included some minor changes to state laws that criminalize PLHIV.

An omnibus crime bill that recently became law in Missouri included some minor changes to state laws that criminalize PLHIV. Senate Bill 53 was sponsored by Senator Tony Luetkemeyer and was signed by Governor Mike Parson on July 14.

While the law reduces minimum sentences for PLHIV who knowingly expose another to HIV, it retains harsh felony-level punishments for exposing another to HIV even without proof of intent to transmit, let alone actual transmission. Because of the retained felony penalties, the broadening of the laws from criminalizing only HIV to now criminalizing “a serious infectious or communicable disease” requiring life-long treatment expands the scope of health issues that now can lead to felony convictions in Missouri. The law also leaves in place a significant sentence enhancement for sex workers living with HIV. 

Some Missouri-based advocates have expressed disappointment that the updates to the law do not go far enough. Compared to recent reform measures passed by other states, including Nevada, Washington and California, the changes in Missouri leave a good deal of reform to be done.

The new law:

  • removes most references to HIV and replaces them with “a serious infectious or communicable disease,” defined as a “non airborne disease spread from person to person that is fatal or causes disabling long-term consequences in the absence of lifelong treatment and management”;

  • Reduces minimum sentences and creates different levels of offenses while keeping felony punishments even if a person does not act with the intent to transmit a disease:

    • If a person “knowingly expose[s]” someone to a serious or communicable disease” it is a Class D felony, punishable by up to 7 years in prison

    • if transmission occurs, it is a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison

    • If a person acts “in a reckless manner by exposing” someone to an infectious or communicable disease, they could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and be jailed for up to one year. 

  • limits criminal conduct to activities that create a “substantial risk of transmission”;

  • eliminates the current law’s “condom use is not a defense” provision;

  • allows both accusers and the accused to maintain the privacy of their identity and health status. 

However, the bill also:

  • does not address Missouri’s extremely harsh penalty enhancement for sex workers living with HIV; 

  • leaves in place felony-level punishments for needle sharing as well as organ, blood, and tissue donation by PLHIV (with an exception for medically appropriate blood and organ donation);

  • expands the list of diseases criminalized for the offense of endangering a corrections or Department of Mental Health employee by prisoners knowingly infected with any serious infectious or communicable disease who expose another person to the disease (previously the law only applied to exposure to HIV, Hepatitis B, or Hepatitis C).