Today, the New York Court of Appeals will hear the case of David Plunkett who was convicted for aggravated assault after allegedly biting a police officer during his 2006 arrest. The case rests on whether the saliva of someone with HIV can be considered a “dangerous instrument” under the law.
Lambda Legal filed a court brief earlier this week arguing that upholding Plunkett’s conviction would further stigmatise people living with HIV.
“Clearly, the trial court here erroneously believed that HIV could be transmitted by saliva,” the Lambda Legal brief reads. (Read more about the case and the entire amicus brief at Lambda Legal’s blog.)
The Positive Justice Project today released a strongly worded press release highlighting that “it’s time that courts rely on science rather than decades-old notions of HIV.” The entire release is below.
Let’s hope science wins out over stigma this time around.
New York, April 26, 2012 – Legal and public health experts are speaking out as the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York, today reviews a case concerning the 2006 conviction of David Plunkett, an HIV-positive man, for aggravated assault for biting a police officer. The state prosecutor argued that Plunkett used his saliva as a “dangerous instrument” when he allegedly bit a police officer during an altercation, for which he is serving a 10-year prison term.
Medical and public health experts long-ago dismissed the risk of HIV transmission through spitting or biting as near-zero, too small even to be measured.
“It is virtually impossible for HIV to be transmitted through biting,” explained Oscar Mairena, Senior Associate for Viral Hepatitis / Policy and Legislative Affairs at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in order for there to exist even a remote possibility of transmission from a bite, there would need to be severe trauma with extensive tissue tearing and damage. What occurred in this case – and in the vast majority of HIV criminal cases that involve biting – bears no resemblance to that description.”
The Plunkett case is one of hundreds across the country where HIV-positive individuals face criminal charges and long sentences on the basis of their HIV status for no-risk conduct and consensual adult sex. Members of the Positive Justice Project, a national group challenging the medical, legal and ethical support for such laws, object to the gross scientific mischaracterizations reflected in HIV-specific criminal laws and prosecutions as “flying in the face of national efforts to get people with HIV tested and into treatment.”
“This type of case reflects widespread ignorance about the routes and actual risks of HIV transmission,” said Beirne Roose-Snyder, Managing Attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). “Persistent misinformation about how HIV is transmitted, and what it means to have HIV in 2012, is a major cause of these laws and can create a major barrier to convincing people that it is safe and necessary to get tested.
Dr. Jeff Birnbaum, Program Director of the Health and Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT) Program and the Family, Adolescent and Children’s Experience at SUNY (FACES) Network added, “I have to battle this type of stigma with the young people I treat all the time. This kind of case just makes my job harder. It’s time that courts rely on science rather than decades-old notions of HIV.”
Dozens of U.S states and territories have laws that criminalize HIV non-disclosure and “exposure,” such as through spitting or biting. Sentences imposed on people convicted of HIV-specific offenses have ranged as high as 50 years, with many getting decades-long sentences despite lack of evidence that HIV exposure, let alone transmission, even occurred. A growing number of defendants are also being required to register as sex offenders.
In New York, prosecutors have used the general criminal law to pursue people with HIV charged with HIV transmission or exposure, resulting in long prison terms despite a lack of proof that the individual charged even was the source of a partner’s infection.
“Each time there is a case like this that relies on ignorance about the nature of HIV, the public gets the message that people with HIV are highly infectious and out to hurt people,” said Michelle Lopez, community advocate and a woman living with HIV. “That message is cruel and counter-productive.”
Susan Rodriguez, also HIV-positive and Founding Director of Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research & Treatment (SMART), an educational and advocacy organization for women and youth living with HIV, added, “Women and young people living with HIV pass through these doors all the time with their heads hanging down, afraid of what people will think of them because they’re positive. It can take a long time for some to believe that they have the right to hold their heads high, because they have a virus, not a character defect or a loaded gun. Telling people to get tested on one hand, and then turning around and treating them like felons? Do they really think that telling people who test positive that they are dangerous will encourage others to get tested, let alone to disclose their status to someone who can get them thrown in jail? Be real.”