Thirty-three states still have laws on the books that can be used to prosecute people living with HIV. Critics call the statutes relics of the past, saying they demonize infected people.
Robert Suttle remembers telling his boyfriend that he was HIV-positive the night they met. After they split, three quarrel-filled months later, that became a point of contention: His ex pressed charges against him. Suttle’s state, Louisiana, is one of 33 states with laws that can be used to prosecute people living with HIV, Stateline reports. Intentionally exposing someone to HIV/AIDS is a felony punishable by up to 11 years in prison. Suttle accepted a plea bargain and served six months in prison. He said he found out too late that pleading guilty meant registering as a sex offender wherever he goes. Some states are looking to repeal such laws or reduce their severity. At issue is the balance between protecting public health and protecting the civil rights of people living with HIV.
The laws, which date to the 1980s and ’90s, vary greatly from state to state. Most impose penalties on people who know their HIV status and potentially expose others. In some states, a conviction can mean up to 35 years in prison. Twenty-four states require HIV-positive people to disclose their status to sexual partners, while six states require people to register as sex offenders if they are convicted. Twenty-five states criminalize activities such as spitting, even though they are unlikely to transmit the virus. Critics say the laws are relics of the past and demonize infected people. Some studies say the laws don’t reduce HIV transmission and may actually drive up HIV rates, because people who feel stigmatized are less likely to get tested. A new study by researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no evidence that the laws reduce transmission of the virus. In 1994, Texas became the first state to repeal its HIV criminal laws. Since then, people have been prosecuted for HIV exposure under general laws such as attempted murder.