Legal and public health experts are applauding the New York Court of Appeals' decision today to vacate the 2006 conviction and sentencing of David Plunkett, an HIV-positive man, for aggravated assault for biting a police officer. The state prosecutor argued that Plunkett had used his saliva as a "dangerous instrument" when he allegedly bit a police officer during an altercation involving several police who were restraining him following an outburst in a medical facility. Plunkett currently is serving a 10-year prison term in Sing Sing.
New York's highest court vacated Mr. Plunkett's conviction and dismissed the aggravated assault complaint against him on the basis that his saliva, or any body fluid or part, cannot be treated as "dangerous instruments" and a basis for charging someone with aggravated assault under New York law.
In a 1999 decision, The NY Court of Appeals had ruled that a person's teeth cannot be characterized as a dangerous weapon, or "instruments" under the terms of the law, as an element of an assuault charge. The prosecutor and lower court attempted to get around this by stating that the "dangerous instrument" in the indictment was in fact the defendant's saliva, which was "readily capable of causing death or other serious physical injury."
In its ruling, the Court "sought not simply to reach a textually and historically correct understanding of what the Legislature meant" the law to include, but also to avoid the injustices that "would result if criminal liability varied with the corporeal attributes of assailants and their victims." This interpretation would make an individual's health, disability or even physical characteristics relevant to a determination of the ability to do harm, resulting in a "sliding scale of criminal liability," the Court concluded.
The ruling is particularly important because it makes clear that a person's health status, disability or other physical attributes should never be the basis for increased charges or sentencing.
Medical and public health experts long-ago dismissed the risk of HIV transmission through spitting or biting as near-zero, too small even to be measured.
"HIV is not a particularly easy virus to transmit, and it is virtually impossible for it to be transmitted through biting," explained Terrance Moore, Director, Policy and Health Equity at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). "However, it is important that we realize that treating HIV or any disease as something that should be the basis of criminal charges, absent actual harm, is terrible for public health efforts. The Court's implicit recognition of the injustice of basing liability on health status is a huge boon for our work."
The Plunkett case is one of hundreds across the country where HIV-positive individuals face criminal charges and long sentences on the basis of their HIV status for no-risk conduct and consensual adult sex. Members of the Positive Justice Project, a national group challenging the medical, legal and ethical support for such laws, object to the gross scientific mischaracterizations reflected in HIV-specific criminal laws and prosecutions as "flying in the face of national efforts to get people with HIV tested and into treatment."
"The decision has important implications for cases where people with HIV essentially are being charged and imprisoned on the basis of their health status rather than any intent to do harm," said Catherine Hanssens, Executive Director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). "The Court of Appeals has gone beyond the issue of transmission risk to say that relying on disability or health status at all is an unfounded and unjust application of aggravated assault statutes."
Dr. Jeff Birnbaum, Executive Director of the Health and Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT) Program and the Family, Adolescent and Children's Experience at SUNY (FACES) Network added, "I have to battle the type of stigma reflected in the prosecutor's point of view all the time. I treat young people who are being told on one hand that HIV is something they can manage, that it doesn't make them a pariah, and on the other that their spit and blood are lethal weapons and that they are dangerous to be around. The prosecutors bringing these cases make my job so much harder. Today's decision is really good news."
Dozens of U.S states and territories have laws that criminalize HIV non-disclosure and "exposure," such as through spitting or biting. Sentences imposed on people convicted of HIV-specific offenses have ranged as high as 50 years, with many getting decades-long sentences despite lack of evidence that HIV exposure, let alone transmission, even occurred. A growing number of defendants are also being required to register as sex offenders.
In New York, prosecutors have used the general criminal law to pursue people with HIV charged with HIV transmission or exposure, resulting in long prison terms despite a lack of proof that the individual charged even was the source of a partner's infection, and even when no transmission occurs.
David Plunkett was represented by Audrey Baron Dunning. Lambda Legal submitted an amicus brief joined by the the American Academy of HIV Medicine, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, the Center for HIV Law and Policy, and the HIV Medical Association