US: Iowa’s criminal HIV transmission law placed under the microscope

A series of articles published this week in the Iowa Independent, have scrutinised Iowa’s poorly-written, erroneously named ‘criminal transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus’ law (transmission is not required to be found guilty) following the May sentencing of 34 year-old Nick Rhoades to 25 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to a one-off act of non-disclosure with another man he met online. The articles suggest that there is a growing, grass-roots movement to reform the law, confirmed by a regular reader of my blog from Iowa, who tells me “some disparate elements are forming to get this law off of Iowa’s books. My state senator seems to be on board and hopefully we can all get ourselves together to form a lobby by this fall to ready ourselves for the legislative session in January.”

Journalist Lynda Waddington’s first article for the Iowa Independent, published last Monday, focuses on the Rhoades case and the history of Iowa’s HIV-specific law passed in 1998, the same year that Mr Rhoades was diagnosed HIV-positive. Since then, 36 people have been charged of whom 24 have been convicted. Ten men and two women are currently in an Iowa prison serving sentences up to 25 years for this ‘crime’.

She critiques the law for being poorly-written, allowing it encompass sexual acts with a “minuscule risk of transmission — such as kissing”. She then writes:

Further, Iowa law not only mandates informed consent of the specific act, but for the person consenting to have knowledge “that the action of exposure could result in transmission.” While this particular phrase could have been added as a protection for individuals with mental deficiencies, could it also be used to prosecute someone who engaged in a low-risk intimate activity without realizing that the activity could potentially result in transmission?

Indeed, sources close to the Rhoades case have informed me that oral sex was the only HIV transmission risk that occurred between the two men, although the Court is vague on this, and the police report too squeamish to mention anything other than “intimate contact”.

In her second article, published on Wednesday, Waddington examines further the impact of this law in Iowa, which she notes has been upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court three times.

She quotes Rhea Van Brocklin, community relations director for the AIDS Project of Central Iowa who states that the law does not appear to dissuade people at high-risk of HIV from testing:

“It could be hearsay within the community that people are afraid to get tested because of the law, but our agency specifically hasn’t seen that,” she said. “In fact, we doubled our testing numbers in 2008. We had a goal to test between 400 and 500 high-risk individuals and we tested about 800 last year. What we see is that people are taking HIV seriously and they want to know their status.”

[This is extremely interesting since I’m currently researching the claim made by many anti-criminalisation advocates that criminal HIV transmission laws deter people from testing, and, from what I am reading, there is no evidence to support these claims.]

The rest of the second article explores whether Iowa’s law should be revised or repealed. She interviews former Iowa representative, Ed Fallon, who voted for the law in 1998, but who now “believes that it might be time for the state to revisit criminal transmission laws.”

“It seems to me that since it is now 11, almost 12, years later, it wouldn’t be bad time to take a look at it again,” said Fallon, who admits he had some reservations before casting his affirmative vote for the bill. “I can think of so many bills we worked on that in the following year, or a few years later, we were rewriting or revisiting. … So, yes, surely the are some tweaks or changes that the legislature could consider relevant to this law, especially with all the new knowledge we have of the disease.”

He recalls that the impetus to pass the law was based on the State accessing Ryan White HIV funding from the Federal Government. However, the homophobia that informed the banning of gay marriage in the same legislative session may also have played a role.

“Certainly, in terms of that conversation, AIDS was a ‘gay disease,’ and we had to crack down on the lifestyle that helped spread the disease. So, there may have been a connection [between criminal transmission and same-sex marriage], but I honestly can’t recall if those types of sentiments continued into this debate.”

The discussion around reform or repeal is the subject of Waddington’s third article published on Friday. She interviews Bob Rigg, an experienced academic who is part of a committee examining the reorganising of Iowa’s criminal code, who warns advocates fighting for reform to be careful what they wish for.

“When people start playing around with the criminal code or they start saying that we should amend our Constitution, I’m like, ‘No, we shouldn’t.’ I err on the side of caution,” he said. “If you think what you’ve got is bad, be careful. You just might end up with something even worse.”

He suggests that a more pragmatic (if extremely conservertive), softly-softly approach might produce better outcomes for individuals convicted under Iowa’s ‘criminal transmission of HIV’: let the judges do what they do, but since the prison authorities have leeway to release individuals on parole, it is they who end up deciding how long a 25 year sentence really is.

“Just because a defendant is sentenced to 25 [years], doesn’t mean he or she is going to serve 25. Some of these individuals could be paroled in as little as two.”While state intervention to reduce prison sentences may not be an intended consequence of the initial legislation, Rigg argues that it can have “a moderating effect” on an otherwise extreme sentence.

“It is the judge’s job to sentence them. It is the DOC’s job to evaluate them for release,” he said.

Of course, this doesn’t the address the fact this is still a discriminatory, outdated law. The article ends somewhat downbeat, however, noting that law reform can be a long, long road.

A comment after the last article, from an HIV-positive Iowan, highlights that such long-term goals are absolutely necessary:

If it’s not possible to eliminate the HIV law in Iowa, amend it to add intent; probably most persons in Iowa that know their HIV status (and you have to know it to be prosecuted under the law) are under treatment and extremely low infection risk. When I was considered for prosecution under the law I was defending myself from an assault–I bit someone on the finger (he stuck his finger in my mouth, actually). Now, it’s not likely I could infect someone in the normal way, let alone a finger bite and yet THREE of Johnson County assistant DA’s recommended I be prosecuted under Iowa’s HIV law.