Published October, 2013

Rhoades v. Iowa, 840 N.W.2d. 726 (Iowa Ct. App. 2013)

On October 2, 2013, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a decision in Rhoades v. Iowa, a case involving Nick Rhoades, a gay man living with HIV who was charged with criminal transmission of HIV. On his trial lawyers' advice, Rhoades pled guilty. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender. The court subsequently reconsidered this sentence, suspended his prison term, and placed Rhoades on supervised probation for five years.

Rhoades filed an application for post-conviction relief arguing that he was deprived of effective legal assistance because his trial lawyer counseled him to plead guilty to criminal transmission of HIV when the facts of the case did not support a guilty plea under Iowa Code section 709C.1. The trial court denied this application.

In this decision, the appellate court affirmed the trial court's decision to deny the application for post-conviction relief. The court concluded that the trial lawyer was not ineffective because receptive oral sex with an HIV positive person with very little measurable HIV viral load substantiates a charge of intentional exposure to fluids in a manner that can transmit HIV. The court found that for a person to be guilty of criminal transmission of HIV under Iowa's law, "it must simply be shown that transmission of HIV from the infected person to the exposed person was possible." The court conceded that the risk might well be very low – referencing a point underscored on appeal that, in fact, the risk of HIV transmission in this case was "zero or near-zero." But the court effectively concluded that intent to engage in oral sex – even in the absence of ejaculation, without sufficient HIV viral load to pose more than a remote theoretical risk, and with no separate evidence that Rhoades intended to do harm or even to expose to his sex partner to his semen – is the functional equivalent of intent to expose another to bodily fluids in a manner than can transmit HIV. The court did not address whether the Iowa statute should be read to incorporate a specific intent to harm because, in its view, "the decision to engage in unprotected sex with another person generally evidence's one's intent to expose that person to" HIV.