September 6, 2017
Written by Teresa Wiltz
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Robert Suttle clearly remembers telling his boyfriend that he was HIV positive the night they met. But after they split, three quarrel-filled months later, that became a point of contention: His “ex” pressed charges against him.
Suttle’s home state, Louisiana, is one of 33 states with laws that can be used to prosecute people living with HIV. And in Louisiana, intentionally exposing someone to HIV/AIDS is a felony punishable by up to 11 years in prison.
Because he wanted to put the whole ordeal behind him, Suttle accepted a plea bargain in 2009 and ended up doing 6 months in prison. He said he found out too late that pleading guilty meant registering as a sex offender wherever he goes.
Now some states are looking to either repeal such laws or reduce their severity. At issue is the balance between protecting public health and protecting the civil rights of individuals living with HIV.
The laws, which date to the 1980s and ’90s, vary greatly from state to state. Most impose criminal penalties on people who know their HIV status and potentially expose others to the virus. In some states, a conviction can mean up to 35 years in prison.
Twenty-four states require HIV-positive people to disclose their status to sexual partners, while six states require people to register as sex offenders as part of their punishment if they are convicted of an HIV-specific crime. In 22 states, felony laws, which cover assault and attempted murder for example, are used to prosecute people living with HIV who knowingly expose someone to the virus. And 25 states criminalize activities such as spitting, even though they are unlikely to transmit the virus.
Other states have statutes that tack on extra punishment based on the defendant’s HIV status. In Utah, for example, HIV-positive people convicted of prostitution, patronizing a prostitute, or solicitation are guilty of a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, if they knew their status at the time of the crime. For an HIV-negative person, those same crimes would be a misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months in prison for a first-time offense.
Critics say the laws are relics of the past and demonize people infected with the virus. Some studies have shown that the laws don’t reduce HIV transmission and may actually drive up HIV rates, because people who feel stigmatized are less likely to get tested. A study published in June by researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no evidence that the laws reduce transmission of the virus.