Handful of States Changing HIV Prosecuting Laws to Reflect HIV-Suppressing Medication

Handful of States Changing HIV Prosecuting Laws to Reflect HIV-Suppressing Medication

When Sanjay Johnson and James Booth got together Oct. 5, 2015, it was a one-night stand, but they would forever be bonded after Booth told an Arkansas police station Johnson had exposed him to HIV.

Despite Johnson’s doctor instances that he was unable to transmit the virus due to medication to suppress it, Little Rock prosecutors went ahead and filed a criminal charge against Johnson.

Johnson, 26, said the charge tested his ability to going on with life, even contemplating suicide.

However, Booth claims he should have been told about Johnson’s HIV status no matter what. He said he would have been able to protect himself.

There are 20 U.S. states with laws similar to Arkansas, making it a crime for HIV positive individuals to have sex without first letting their partners known about the infection, even if they’re on medication to suppress it or use a condom.

According to HIV patient advocates and health experts, the laws don’t do anything to deter the behavior; just adds to the stigma that stops people from being diagnosed and seeking treatment.

Both Michigan and North Carolina have updated their HIV policies that would exempt HIV positive people on virus-suppressing medication from being prosecuted. A law in Louisiana went in effect in August 2018 that lets defendants challenge charges of exposing a partner to HIV if a doctor provides evidence that they are being treated.

Advocates claim the policies are causing a gap that’s leaving people unable to attain the virus-suppressing drug vulnerable to being prosecuted. States need to focus on decriminalizing HIV exposure unless they can prove malice – a person intentionally infects another person.

This legal fight is on the heels of the Trump administration’s goal to completely rid the world of HIV by 2030.

Laws’ advocates say, even though the disease is no longer a death sentence, it still means a lifetime of costly medical treatment.

In a brief, filed last year, the Arkansas attorney general’s office rejected the argument that HIV exposure should no longer be criminalized, saying it was still a health risk for the public.

Johnson and Booth met through a gay dating app.

Booth claimed he asked Johnson of his HIV status and was told he was HIV positive. The pair then had unprotected sex. Johnson said he doesn’t recall talking about his HIV status. Prosecutors offered Johnson a plea deal, which demonstrates officials are aware of science’s advances in HIV. According to the terms of the deal, Johnson did not have to spend time in prison, and his record was expunged.

However, prosecutors wanted to highlight the importance of talking about HIV status with a partner. After all, there’s still a victim in the crime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV positive people on antiretroviral medications can lower their viral levels to the point that they don’t transmit the disease. However, in 2016, roughly half of the 1.1 million people in the U.S. thought to live with HIV are virally suppressed.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Sarah Lewis Peel said the state’s new policy ensures that HIV prevention and control strategies are deeply based on science. Critics claim the change could leave some people behind, but she listed various programs that can help with HIV medication costs.

Critics say in decriminalizing HIV exposure unless there was intent is a move in saying HIV is manageable and cannot be easily contracted. And, Georgia may be going in that direction. There is pending litigation that requires proof of intent before HIV cases could be prosecuted.

It’s unknown the number of people who have faced prosecution under the various HIV laws in the U.S. However, authorities in Georgia and Florida have made about 1,500 arrests on suspected HIV-related crimes from the 1980s to 2017 with hundreds of convictions.

According to Booth, he tested HIV position after his sexual encounter with Johnson. However, Nathanial Smith, Johnson’s doctor, said there was no way Booth contracted the disease from Johnson since his patient’s viral load was very low. He testified in the case.

Still, Johnson entered a no-contest plea in February to aggravated assault and was given five years’ probation. If convicted, he could have spent up to 30 years in prison and would have registered as a sex offender.

Johnson said the experience had scarred, making him more closed off than before.

Booth said he’s sympathetic to what Johnson endured but still feels it was right to tell the police about the situation. He said it was something that had to be dealt with.

Written by Mark Riegel, MD

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