JEFFERSON CITY • Thirty years after Missouri legislators rushed to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic — without full knowledge of what exactly was going on — some public health professionals and state lawmakers are urging a rewrite of what they say are outdated and medically inaccurate statutes.
Under Missouri law, someone who is HIV-positive could be convicted of a felony if he or she exposes a partner to the disease without the partner’s knowledge or consent. Missouri law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence for the Class A felony of transmitting HIV and a minimum five-year sentence for the Class B felony of knowingly exposing someone to the disease.
Law enforcement agencies have used Missouri’s statutes to bring felony charges in heinous cases, such as when in 2013 a southeast Missouri man admitted to exposing 300 of his partners to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But advocates say that in general, laws that criminalize exposing someone to HIV result in questionable prosecutions and negative public health outcomes.
Reps. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, and Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, proposed similar bills last legislative session that would reduce the penalties associated with exposing someone to HIV. They say they are preparing the same bills for the 2019 session.
Timothy Lohmar, St. Charles County prosecutor, agreed with the concept of reducing sentences.
“The penalty provisions that were enacted back then were designed to hold somebody accountable for basically causing someone’s eventual death,” he said. “I think nowadays we realize that with the advancements in science and medicine, that HIV is not necessarily a death sentence.”
In 2015, Lohmar prosecuted Michael L. Johnson, a former Lindenwood University wrestler who originally received a 30-year prison sentence after a jury found him guilty of five counts related to exposing his partners to HIV.
An appeals court overturned that conviction, and Johnson last year agreed to a plea deal that included a 10-year sentence, the minimum allowed under state law. National LGBT advocates raised the profile of the case, questioning the efficacy and fairness of Missouri’s laws.
“I think that the fact that the minimum was 10 years, that that’s the best we can do, shows how severe these charges are,” Johnson’s attorney, Eric Selig, said last year. “There is no other disease that if you infect someone else with you’re charged with a crime.”
In the 1980s, “everybody was very frightened by HIV but nobody really knew what to do about it,” said Dr. Fred Rottnek, a St. Louis University public health professor who has worked for decades on HIV/AIDS advocacy.
Because little was known about the disease, legislators authored laws that do not accurately reflect how the disease is spread, Rottnek said.
Missouri’s statutes outlaw biting by people who are HIV-positive, for example. The law states that prisoners who are HIV-positive and spit on someone are guilty of a felony. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says there is a negligible risk of spreading the disease in these ways.)
Rottnek said laws similar to Missouri’s may discourage people from getting tested because knowing one’s status can result in a criminal charge if the person exposes another to HIV.
“If they can say they don’t know their status, they can’t be prosecuted for knowingly passing — for exposing someone to HIV,” Rottnek said specifically of sex workers. “So what that does in the long term” is “they not only jeopardize their own health, but they’re jeopardizing the health of anyone they have sex with.”
Meanwhile, a 2017 U.S. Centers for Disease Control study suggested that HIV laws such as Missouri’s have had no impact on preventing the spread of the disease.
The CDC also said last year that those who take medication to suppress their viral load to undetectable levels carry “effectively no risk” of transmitting the disease.
Rehder’s bill reduces transmission of HIV from a Class A felony to a Class B felony, and reduces exposure from a Class B felony to a Class C felony. McCreery’s goes a step further, making such crimes misdemeanors.
Current law states someone can be charged for acting “in a reckless manner” and knowingly exposing someone to HIV without that person’s knowledge or consent.
McCreery’s bill says that an HIV-positive person must purposefully try to infect someone with the disease to be charged. Rehder’s measure says the person can be charged if they knowingly expose someone to HIV and do not take risk-reducing measures.
Both bills make condom use and use of medications to reduce viral loads affirmative defenses in court, two things not currently allowed. The legislation also says that prosecutors have to consider whether a person’s activity carried a substantial risk of transmission, as determined by scientific evidence.
Rehder said the changes would encourage more people to know their status.
“We want people to know their status and to get treatment so that we’re not spreading HIV,” she said.