US: Obama administration calls for end to HIV-specific criminal laws

Fantastic news from the United States, courtesy of Todd Heywood at the Michigan Messenger. His article is reproduced in full below.

On Thursday I present my poster at AIDS 2010 analysing two years of US arrests and prosecutions, so this is extremely timely, and very exciting. It is also the first time I have added a ‘decriminalisation’ label to my keywords – a significant milestone!

From the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States, July 2010.

An important step we can take is to ensure that laws and policies support our current understanding of best public health practices for preventing and treating HIV. At least 32 states have HIV-specific laws that criminalize behavior by people living with HIV. Some criminalize behavior like spitting and biting by people with HIV, and were initially enacted at a time when there was less knowledge about HIV’s transmissibility. Since it is now clear that spitting and biting do not pose significant risks for HIV transmission, many believe that it is unfair to single out people with HIV for engaging in these behaviors and should be dealt with in a consistent manner without consideration of HIV status. Some laws criminalize consensual sexual activity between adults on the basis that one of the individuals is a person with HIV who failed to disclose their status to their partner. CDC data and other studies, however, tell us that intentional HIV transmission is atypical and uncommon. A recent research study also found that HIV-specific laws do not influence the behavior of people living with HIV in those states where these laws exist. While we understand the intent behind such laws, they may not have the desired effect and they may make people less willing to disclose their status by making people feel at even greater risk of discrimination. In some cases, it may be appropriate for legislators to reconsider whether existing laws continue to further the public interest and public health. In many instances, the continued existence and enforcement of these types of laws run counter to scientific evidence about routes of HIV transmission and may undermine the public health goals of promoting HIV screening and treatment.

Recommendation 3.3 Promote public health approaches to HIV prevention and care: State legislatures should consider reviewing HIV-specific criminal statutes to ensure that they are consistent with current knowledge of HIV transmission and support public health approaches to preventing and treating HIV.

Obama administration calls for end to HIV-specific criminal laws
Advocates call new strategy a ‘wonderful development’

Many HIV experts and advocates are applauding the nation’s first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, issued on July 13 by the White House, because it calls for an end to state laws that criminalize the transmission of HIV.

Those laws date back to the late 1980s and early 90s, when the death toll from HIV infection was mounting and no medications were readily available to treat the viral infection.

“In many instances, the continued existence and enforcement of these types of laws run counter to scientific evidence about routes of HIV transmission and may undermine the public health goals of promoting HIV screening and treatment,” the report says, after acknowledging the rationale behind passage of such laws. “CDC data and other studies, however, tell us that intentional HIV transmission is atypical and uncommon. A recent research study also found that HIV-specific laws do not influence the behavior of people living with HIV in those states where these laws exist.”

Michigan is one of 32 states with HIV-specific criminal laws. In Michigan, it is a felony for a person with HIV infection to engage in sexual penetration “however slight” without first disclosing their HIV-positive status to the sex partner. The law includes the use of sex toys, which have never been shown to be a route of transmission for HIV. It does not, however, include sharing needles, which is an extremely effective way to transmit the virus, experts say.

National experts weigh in

“It is the first truly meaningful official statement on the issue of criminalization and the role of civil rights in addressing the HIV epidemic, and reflects both the advocacy of HIV civil rights advocates who consistently prioritized the issue, and the willingness of ONAP (Office of National AIDS Policy) staff to respond substantively and decisively,” Catherine Hanssens, executive Director of the HIV Law and Policy Center in New York.

Hanssens pointed out how the strategy’s implementation plan — which is a companion document to the strategy — goes beyond merely advising legislatures to re-visit their HIV-specific laws and contains specific goals to address HIV criminalization, including study by the Department of Justice.

“Individually and collectively, these actions can and should produce findings that HIV-specific criminal laws and prosecutions contravene prioritized public health goals; subject people with HIV to irrational, exceptionalist treatment and punishment solely on the basis of their known HIV status, and also consequently represent a violation of federal antidiscrimination laws created to protect those affected by HIV,” said Hanssens.

Bebe Anderson, director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s HIV Project, echoed Hanssens, calling the strategy and its implementation plan a “wonderful development.”

But she says individual states may struggle with addressing the laws.

“I think it will depend on each state and the political environment,” she noted.

Michigan lawmakers divided on HIV-specific criminal law

Anderson’s statement is reflective of the political reality in Michigan today. With the state House controlled by Democrats and the state Senate controlled by Republicans, lawmakers say that while these changes might be necessary, they will be difficult to achieve.

“If they don’t work, then we have to revisit them,” said House Speaker Andy Dillon of Redford Township of the HIV-specific criminal laws.

“Absolutely, we need to revisit them,” said Rep. Joan Bauer (D-Lansing). “I am open to looking at what is working and what is not.”

Mark Meadows (D-East Lansing) chairs the House Judiciary Committee and he too said he would revisit the laws. He said he felt it was still important to revisit Michigan’s bio-terrorism law to clarify it after a 45-year-old HIV-positive Clinton Township man was charged with the law for allegedly biting a neighbor during a fight. Those charges have since been dismissed by Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Peter Maceroni.

Meadows said prosecutions such as the Macomb case increase stigma against the HIV-positive community. He previously has called that prosecution “silly.”

But Republican law makers say not so quick.

State Sen. Tom George (R-Texas Township) chairs the Senate Health Policy Committee.

“I see these (calls to address specific laws– such as the HIV-specific criminal laws or nondiscrimination laws) as more of a political agenda and less of a public health issue,” George said. “I don’t think changing that or revisiting that is going to make a big difference like testing will.”

George, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor and is a physician, is pushing legislation which will change Michigan’s law on HIV testing, which requires signed informed consent before an HIV test can be conducted. His legislation would make Michigan an opt-out state, meaning patients would give general consent for HIV testing when consenting for care and treatment. They could opt out of HIV testing, but only in writing.

Rep. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) serves on the House Judiciary Committee. And while he has been a vocal critic of the HIV-as-terrorism prosecution, and previously said he was in favor of repealing the state criminal law on HIV disclosure, now says he no longer favors the move.

“After careful consideration and listening to the feelings of my constituents, I think you should have to disclose it,” says Jones. “Should it just be HIV? Absolutely not. It should include things that are much easier to transmit like Hepatitis and TB.”

Jones is the former sheriff of Eaton County and says he thinks that an HIV-positive person spitting at a police officer, and declaring the hope the officer is infected, should be criminalized, even though there is no known risk of infection from the act.

“It shows intent,” Jones said.

The National HIV/AIDS Strategy specifically cites criminalizing spitting as a concern.

“Since it is now clear that spitting and biting do not pose significant risks for HIV transmission, many believe that it is unfair to single out people with HIV for engaging in these behaviors and should be dealt with in a consistent manner without consideration of HIV status,” the report states.

Jones admitted it is a crime already in Michigan to spit on a police officer, noting that he vividly recalled while a road officer having a suspect spit at him. That man, Jones said, ended up serving 30 days in jail for the incident.

Regardless of the how debate starts shaping up in Michigan, don’t expect the Michigan Department of Community Health to step into the fray anytime soon, says Debra Szwedja, acting director of the MDCH’s Division of Health, Wellness and Disease Control.

“Really, at this point in time, that is something the legislature will have to initiate,” Szwedja said.

East Africa: Move Towards Common HIV/AIDS Law (IPS)

Another excellent piece from the Inter Press Service News Agency, whose mission is to give voices to the voiceless.

EAST AFRICA: Move Towards Common HIV/AIDS Law
by Wambi Michael

ARUSHA, Dec 4 (IPS) – All HIV-positive east Africans could soon access free anti-retroviral treatment even as they move freely from country to country, if a new proposed law comes into effect.The East African Community (EAC) is currently developing a law to guide the region’s response to HIV/AIDS.

This comes as the regional block moves towards an integration process that would see more citizens cross the boarders in the five states of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda.

“With the signing of the protocol on customs union that will enable free movement of persons, you are actually going to see free movement of the virus because people will be interacting more easily as they transact business. The effect of that is that HIV must be seen regionally,” said Catherine Mumma, a Kenyan Human Rights Lawyer, who works with consultancy group Africa Vision Integrated Strategies. She led a consultation in the EAC states before the drafting of the new proposed law.

Based upon the consultations, the proposed law aims to provide joint treatment policies for people in the region while they move freely across the borders.

“One other thing is that east Africans would want a law that would enable them to access services anywhere they go in east Africa. So that if you were in Nairobi and you were on ARVs and you only brought two days ARVs and Kenya Airways went on strike, you should be able on the third day to walk into a treatment centre and get treated.”

The law will allow for a common stance on HIV/AIDS, which aims to be non-discriminatory. Currently some countries in the region criminalise the treatment of HIV-positive sex workers and gay men.

The presidents of the five member states agreed in November to commence the East Africa common market protocol, which beings in early in 2010. It will allow for the free movement of labour and trade across borders, similar to the Southern African Development Community trade agreement.

Lucy Ng’ang’a, the executive director for the Eastern African National Networks of AIDS Service Organisations (EANNASO) said the proposed law will take on the good parts of the existing laws in the region but also tackle some of the silent issues and make better the areas that are controversial.

For example, Kenya has as a law providing for the free treatment and counselling for HIV-positive people.

One of the controversial areas is the criminalisation of the transmission of HIV/AIDS being suggested by countries like Uganda.

Another controversial area is that in the Penal Codes of Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania prostitutes and gay men, who are considered high risk in HIV/AIDS transmission, are not allowed access to treatment.

Member states like Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi already have laws on HIV/AIDS.

Uganda’s law, the HIV/AIDS Control Bill 2009, was tabled before Parliament in 2008 as a Private Member’s Bill. It has already caused a public outcry because of a clause relating to the criminalisation of HIV transmission between adults.

EANNASO contracted consultancy group Africa Vision Integrated Strategies to study the existing HIV laws within the region and advise on a draft bill for an East African Law on HIV.

The report by the Kenyan-registered consultancy was presented at a regional consultative meeting held between December 3rd and 4th, 2009.

Participants at the meeting in Arusha voiced concern at provisions in the member states laws relating to the rights of People Living With HIV/AIDS and criminalisation of HIV transmission.

Mumma told IPS that most people consulted felt that the issue of wilful transmission of HIV/AIDS should be punishable, but not in the context of the HIV law. It should be dealt with separately because if it was included in the HIV law, it will stigmatise people who may use this law to seek protection and treatment, the East Africa Law Society said.

“HIV should be seen as any other diseases including hepatitis B. And it would better for it to be dealt with in the context of the penal code even if it meant drafting another clause in the penal code,” Mumma said.

Sarah Bonaya, a Kenyan Representative at East African Legislative Assembly and also a member of the General Purposes Committee in the parliament, said she was sure that her colleagues in the assembly would support the Bill which may be tabled as a Private Member’s Bill to the East African Assembly.

She was happy that consultations had gone on through the five states to ensure a harmonised law that would address some of the negative provisions within each member state law that would affect management of HIV/AIDS as a region.

The new proposed law on HIV/AIDS would be the second in Africa after the SADC HIV law adapted in November 2008. The SADC law provides a comprehensive framework for harmonisation of HIV and human rights in southern Africa.

Brazil: Health ministry says no to criminalisation following two high-profile prosecutions

Brazil’s Ministry of Health is preparing a public statement in which it recommends that prosecutions for negligent or reckless HIV exposure or transmission cease. Rather, only intentional transmission where both intent and transmission are proven, in accordance with UNAIDS guidance, should ever be prosecuted. The statement follows two high-profile prosecutions in São Paulo.

I first heard of this yesterday when the legal correspondent of Veja Magazine, the largest circulation magazine in Brazil (and fourth largest in the world), contacted me for information about other countries’ approaches to criminalisation for an article she is writing about the issue.

She told me that the first prosecution actually took place in 2004, but that the case has become a national issue since the man’s retrial, which ended two weeks ago. The case involves a married man who was charged with attempted murder for not disclosing his HIV status to his mistress during their three year affair, and who subsequently tested HIV-positive. His wife of 25 years knew he was HIV-positive and they always used condoms, and she is not a complainant. In the first trial, the Grand Jury found him guilty of attempted murder and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. This was upheld on appeal, but a second appeal based on a legal technicality led to a second trial in which he was charged, and found guilty of, the lesser charge of assault and sentenced to two and half years – time he had already served.

A second case involves another heterosexual man who has also been charged with attempted murder for having unprotected sex without disclosure with three women, two of whom subsequently tested HIV-positive. This case is ongoing and awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.

What is significant is that Brazil’s government appears to be on a collision course with the judiciary. Although my Veja correspondent was vague about the Ministry of Health’s statement (she had not yet been able to interview them), I found this report from Odia/Terra online published on Tuesday which includes a quote from the Ministry of Health’s Eduardo Barbosa

According to Eduardo Barbosa, Deputy Director of the Department of STD, AIDS and Hepatitis from the Ministry of Health, in order for HIV transmission to be considered a crime the court must, in addition to proving intent, consider the existence of “psychosocial factors”, the stage of treatment of disease and the responsibility of the partner to protect themselves.

A ministry statement goes against a global trend to criminalize those who transmit the disease, according to Barbosa. “Some countries end up adopting such measures as if it were possible to isolate and blame in order to control the epidemic.”

This fits well with Brazil’s history of focusing on a human rights approach to HIV. In fact, the government is about to pass a new (protective) law which will punish anyone who discriminates against someone with living with HIV with up to four years in prison.

Bill 6124/05 criminalises anyone who promotes any act of discrimination, exclusion or restriction of people living with HIV in schools and kindergartens; in the workplace; and in healthcare settings. It also criminalises third party disclosure of someone’s HIV-positive status in these settings.

O reporter.com reports that

Bill 6124/05 was approved unanimously today [17 November] by the Committee on Constitution and Justice (CCJ) of the House of Representatives. The approval of the project, which was approved by the rapporteur, Congressman Regis de Oliveira (PSC-SP), will benefit about 630 thousand infected in Brazil…

“Nearly a decade after we first attempted to pass this law, the House of Representatives is finally close to creating a law that punishes any act of distinction, exclusion or restriction to people who are HIV-positive,” said Regis de Oliveira. During the debate, the proposition, which is being handled in the Committee on Constitution and Justice (CCJ), had the support of most lawmakers…

“It is important that society should identify the various forms of discrimination in order to eliminate them, helping to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Discrimination threatens the rights of these citizens live in dignity, so that often they become victims of irreversible psychological damage, ” he concludes.

The bill now goes to the vote on the House floor.

I should have more details on the cases and the government’s official response next week.

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.

New Zealand: Article examines implications of ‘HIV predator’ case

After all the hysterical media reporting surrounding the current ‘HIV predator’ case comes a thoughtful analysis of the situation from the New Zealand Herald. The article also usefully includes a summary of the most important criminal HIV transmission cases over the years.

I include the first few paragraphs below. Click here to read the full article.

HIV-positive: The case for disclosure
By Chris Barton
Saturday Jun 06, 2009

Many questions arise from the case of the 40-year-old HIV-positive man charged with wilfully infecting three other men with HIV and attempting to infect a fourth.

Not just why the man, now in custody with name suppression, allegedly did what he did. Or why it took so long for the police to stop him. Or why our laws are so out of date that doctors and other health professionals are uncertain about what to do when they come across such reckless behaviour. Or why HIV is not a notifiable condition.

Puzzling as all that sounds, the greater mystery here is why did the man’s sexual partners participate the way they did? Why, after decades of messages honed from the reality of the Aids epidemic 25 years on, did they not practise safe sex?

Past cases include:

1994 Kenyan musician Peter Mwai sentenced to seven years jail for having unprotected sex with five women and infecting two with HIV. Deported in June 1998 having served four years in jail here, Mwai died in Uganda in September 1998.

1999 David Purvis, a 31-year-old Pakuranga invalid beneficiary, sentenced to four months jail for committing a criminal nuisance by having unprotected sex with another man who did not contract HIV. Pleaded guilty.

2001 Former male prostitute Christopher Truscott held in “secure” care (he has escaped many times) in Christchurch after being prosecuted in 1999 for having unprotected sex with four men. Intellectually impaired, Truscott seemed unable to comprehend the implications of his HIV infection.

2004 Zimbabwean Shingirayi Nyarirangwe, 25, was sentenced to three years jail after pleading guilty in the Auckland District Court to four charges of criminal nuisance and three of assault relating to unprotected sex with several women.

2005 Justin Dalley found guilty of criminal nuisance by failing to inform a woman he was HIV positive – sentenced in Wellington to 300 hours’ community work, six months’ supervision and told him to pay $1000 reparation to the woman to cover her counselling costs and expenses. The woman did not contract HIV. Soon after, Dalley was acquitted on a second, similar charge because on that occasion he did wear a condom – possibly setting a legal precedent that by wearing a condom an HIV positive man is taking “reasonable precautions” against infection and need not disclose his HIV status.

Current A New Zealander originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo awaiting trial on charges that he had unprotected sex with a woman and infected her with the virus. It is possible he also infected other women.