US: Alabama lawmaker's proposal to increase 'knowing' HIV/STI transmission to a felony likely to resurface in 2016

People with sexually transmitted diseases who knowingly spread infection to their partners could face prison time, if a bill now in the Legislature becomes law.

Proposed by Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, the bill would make knowingly transmitting an STD a Class C felony if passed; it’s currently a misdemeanor. Some advocates worry, though, that the bill might have unintended consequences that make it harder to fight the spread of disease.

Givan said her goal was to target those who intentionally put the lives of others at risk. The bill was inspired by calls Givan received following a case involving Montgomery pastor Juan McFarland. “This gentleman knew he had HIV and decided to engage in sexual relationships with multiple women, which could lead to their deaths,” she said.

Some of those women were reluctant to speak out because the charge McFarland could have faced was only a misdemeanor, she said.

“They said ‘I might want to come forward, but there’s not enough strength in the current law. I would have made myself a public spectacle for no reason,’” Givan said the women told her.

AIDS Alabama policy chief Lauren Banks worries that the proposed law could do more harm than good, though.

“By and large this law is not helpful.  It stigmatizes HIV or a person with an (sexually transmitted infection) even more,” Banks said. “It would police the bedroom.”

Under current law, those convicted of the misdemeanor offense would face no more than 90 days in jail, Givan said. Offenders might get out on time served.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Givan.

Banks, who has worked with Givan to modify the bill, worries that the original version does not specify which STDs would be included in the law. Some infections, she noted, can be spread even when using condoms, such as human papilloma virus and herpes.

“So even safe sex could be criminalized,” Banks said.

Banks also said if the bill passes it could cause fewer people to get tested for STDs.

“Other states that have enacted these laws have seen negative fallout because once you know your status, you are culpable. But we want people to know their status. We don’t want people to be afraid of what could happen to them.”

Banks suggested another way to counteract rising STD rates.

“If anything, we should focus on creating sexual health education curricula for our schools that is age-appropriate and medically accurate,” she said. “Let’s be preventative and not punitive.”

Eric Guster, a Birmingham attorney who frequently comments on criminal issues, said the consequences of tougher sentencing should be considered.

“If a person is found guilty,  a first-time offender would receive a possible sentence of a year and day to 10 years in prison,” he said.

Guster said he’d want the bill to specify the diseases mentioned. He pointed out several  problems with enforcing the law.

“The misdemeanor is rarely used because people don’t want to put their sexual history on display,” he said.  “When you’re speaking of STDs, people go to the doctor, get treated and then move on with their lives.”

Also, the burden of proof would be steep.

“The affected person has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that partner gave them the disease and that’s the only sexual partner they’ve had who could’ve done it,” he said.

Making knowingly transmitting an STD a felony without creating stiffer penalties for certain types of diseases also raised concerns for Guster.

“When you have cases where younger people have a disease that is easily transferable, that puts a lot of students at risk for felonies for just doing things teenagers do,” Guster said.

Givan said she has received calls of support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle. She and Banks also discussed possible changes to the bill.

“Juandalynn tried to meet us halfway with amendments such as transmission has to occur, and a disclaimer that if you tell your partner you have HIV, you would be exempt from prosecution if they were infected,” said Banks.

The bill, however, has not moved since the beginning of the legislative session in March, and appears to be running out of time for passage this year.

Givan said she changed the bill late last week and expected it to be the first one “in the hopper to go out for sponsorship next year.”

“I want safeguards in place,” she said. “I think it’s a piece of legislation that is needed. I just want to be sure we do it the right way.”