US: Iowa Supreme Court rejects ‘theoretical’ HIV risk, reverses ‘HIV exposure’ conviction

Edwin J Bernard - June 16, 2014

Last Friday, June 13, the Iowa Supreme Court set aside the ‘HIV exposure’ conviction of Nick Rhoades, who was initially sentenced to 25 years in prison, with required registration as a sex offender, after having a one-time sexual encounter with another man comprising anal sex with a condom and oral sex without whilst his viral load was undetectable.

In reversing the conviction, the Court recognised that sexual HIV exposure risks should not be based on outdated beliefs or theoretical risks and must be specific to the individual acts and situations that are before the Court.

Read the entire written judgement from the Iowa Court of Appeal

The Court’s ruling sends the case back to Black Hawk County District Court, where prosecutors could have another chance to claim Mr Rhoades actions leading up to his arrest violated the law. However, it is difficult to imagine that prosecutors would be able to establish that there is a factual basis to sustain a conviction in light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision, and much more likely that a District Court judge will allow his initial guilty plea – which the Court accepted was due to being poorly advised by his initial lawyer – to be withdrawn.

[Update October 1st: Assistant Black Hawk County Attorney Linda Fangman has filed a motion to dismiss the case against Mr Rhoades, meaning his six year ordeal is finally over]

The ruling came two weeks after Iowa’s Governor repealed the draconian HIV-specific law under which Mr Rhoades was convicted, replacing it with an infectious disease law that, amongst other significant improvements, provides a defence of taking “practical means to prevent transmission”, defined as “substantial good faith compliance with a treatment regimen prescribed by the person’s health care provider” and use of “a prophylactic device”.

[See this just published news story in ProPublica and Buzzfeed for more on Mr Rhoades’s case, the new Iowa law, and what else is happening in terms of US HIV criminalisation reform.]

HIV risks must be shown to be more than theoretical

The Iowa Court of Appeal’s decision was celebrated in press releases from Lambda Legal and the Center for HIV Law and Policy and in an editorial by the Des Moines Register. As well as personal victory for Nick (who last week had his GPS monitoring device removed by Senator Matt McCoy, during a moving ceremony at the HIV is not a crime conference in Grinnell, Iowa, following the new law’s retrospective removal of all people convicted of ‘HIV exposure’ in Iowa from the sex offender registry) it may also lead to judges and prosecutors revisiting outdated assumptions about HIV risk in future HIV-related prosecutions in other US states and jurisdictions.

“The importance of the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision cannot be overstated,” said Christopher Clark, Counsel for Lambda Legal. “We look forward to making these arguments again and to taking this Court’s clear guidance on the interpretation and application of these types of laws to the many jurisdictions in which HIV criminalization remains a pressing issue.”

In 2010, Mr Rhoades filed a petition in the District Court for post-conviction relief arguing that his attorney did not inform him of the specifics of the law, allowing him to plead guilty to charges that were not supported by the actual events and facts. After his petition was denied Rhoades appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Lambda Legal joined forces with Rhoades’ appellate attorneys, Joseph C. Glazebrook and Dan L. Johnston with Glazebrook & Moe, LLP based in Des Moines, Iowa, and The Center for HIV Law and Policy took the lead with the HIV Law Project in drafting a friend-of-the-court brief on the science of HIV treatment and transmission. The brief supporting Rhoades’ appeal was filed on behalf of The Center for HIV Law and Policy, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), and the HIV Law Project.

In its ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the criminal law required that a defendant “intentionally expose” another person to HIV. The court noted that the fact that HIV primarily is transmitted through sexual intercourse and contact with blood, semen or vaginal fluid is not a legally acceptable substitute for the facts necessary to say that a particular individual acted with the intent to expose someone to HIV in a manner that actually posed a real risk of HIV transmission.

Watch Lambda Legal’s Christopher Clark make his oral arguments before the Court of Appeal

Justice Wiggins, writing for the majority opinion, highlighted the specifics of the HIV risks involved in this case in three different places:

Based on the state of medicine both now and at the time of the plea in 2009, we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV, regardless of an infected individual’s viral load, when that individual engages in protected anal or unprotected oral sex with an uninfected person. (page 3)

Today we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV when an infected person engages in protected anal sex with another person or unprotected oral sex, regardless of the infected person’s viral load. (page 17)

At the time of the plea, Rhoades’s viral count was nondetectable, and there is a question of whether it was medically true a person with a nondetectable viral load could transmit HIV through contact with the person’s blood, semen or vaginal fluid or whether transmission was merely theoretical. The judicial notice we took in previous cases is subject to reasonable dispute here; thus, it is improper for us to similarly take judicial notice in this case. With the advancements in medicine regarding HIV between 2003 and 2008, we are unable to take judicial notice of the fact that HIV may be transmitted through contact with an infected individual’s blood, semen or vaginal fluid, and that sexual intercourse is one of the most common methods of passing the virus to fill in the gaps to find a factual basis for Rhoades’s guilty plea. Thus, there was not a sufficient factual basis for the district court to accept the plea. Therefore, trial counsel was ineffective for allowing the district court to accept the plea without a factual basis. (page 18)

In addition, the Court found that prosecutors must establish something more than that HIV transmission is theoretically plausible. The court rejected prior courts’ treatment of “possible” as meaning any likelihood of occurrence, no matter how remote. “Could” or “possible” in this context should mean, as the Iowa Supreme Court said, “the reality of a thing occurring, rather than a theoretical chance.” It also said that prosecutions must rely on expert testimony about actual transmission likelihood in these cases, and defendants don’t have to show that transmission would never occur in order to successfully defend against charges of HIV exposure.

First, we recognize this statute requires expert medical testimony on the likelihood of transmission of HIV. Experts are not required to testify in absolutes when it comes to causation….Second, and more importantly, we would not want to deprive a person of his or her liberty on the basis the defendant’s actions caused something that can only theoretically occur. (page 8 )

Of note, bearing in mind that only 25 percent of the more than 1 million individuals in the US who are living with HIV are achieving viral suppression, the amicus (friend of the court) brief was careful not rely too much on treatment’s impact on viral load, and rather emphasised the already low per act risk of transmission via various forms of sexual contact, regardless of whether the person was on treatment.

Rhoades v. State of Iowa, Amicus Brief, Supreme Court of Iowa