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Advocates push to reform HIV law

BY REID CHANDLER | MARCH 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Racing up and down the halls of the Iowa State Capitol, Tami Haught is hard at work.

She has waged her fight for several years now, rarely seeing results. But hope was restored to Haught on Feb. 27, when the Iowa Senate passed her bill unanimously, 48-0. With the only hurdle left being the House, if Haught finally wins her fight this year, Iowans living with HIV/AIDS in the state will no longer fear prison for not telling intimate partners about their disease.  

A House Judiciary Committee vote on the bill is expected today following a subcommittee’s meeting on Tuesday.

“It’s taken us over five years to get to this point,” she said. “It’s been a long, educational outreach campaign.”

Haught is an organizer for the Community HIV and Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network. She and her colleagues have sought to reduce the stigma of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases in the state, in addition to encouraging more testing among Iowans for these diseases. Their ultimate mission: to reform Iowa Code, or Iowa’s HIV-criminalization law.

Exposing someone to HIV, whether or not the virus is transmitted, is a Class B felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison and a lifetime stay on the state sex-offender registry.

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“If you cannot prove you disclosed your status to your partner, you can be sentenced by up to 25 years in jail,” Haught said.

Disclosing your status to another may not seem like a difficult task, but unless people infected have written proof in the form of a letter, email, or contract, their partner can accuse them of not disclosing their status. Even if the partner is not infected by the disease, the person with HIV is in grave legal danger.

The law opens up potential for the manipulation of those infected with HIV in the state through the risk of a false accusation, but there are many other issues the current law has helped create; Haught says 709C encourages Iowans to not get tested for HIV. If you are not aware of your positive status, the law states, you cannot be found guilty.

“A law should not prevent somebody from accessing care and treatment,” Haught said.

In the United States, there are many poster children for the flaws of HIV-criminalization laws.

One Iowan, Nick Rhoades, has paid a price because of the law. In 2009, Rhoades was found guilty of criminal transmission after having a sexual encounter with a person without disclosing his status. He used a condom, but treatment and medication made the level of the virus in his system so low it could not be detected. Even so, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. A year after his sentence, a judge reviewed his case and released him, but the experience drove him to become a part of the SERO Project, a national advocacy and research group focused on reforming HIV criminalization laws across the country. SERO’s data say almost two-thirds of states, territories, and possessions have HIV-specific or STD criminal statutes. Out of these, Iowa’s is one of the most punitive with a Class B felony. 

“Many of these cases are based on he-said she-said, he-said he-said,” Haught said. They should have to prove it, because right now, the burden is on the person living with HIV.”

That is where Haught’s proposed bill comes in: The Contagious or Infectious Disease Transmission Act would reform 709C in several ways, but put simply, the criminalization law would be expanded to include all infectious or contagious diseases, not just HIV. Transmitting the disease with intent still would result in a Class B felony, but other acts would be tiered; intent without transmission, or transmission with reckless disregard would be a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Exposure to a disease with reckless disregard, but without transmission, would be a serious misdemeanor.

“Everyone agrees if someone is intentionally transmitting something, they should be sentenced to the full extent of the law,” Haught said. “But [our law] has a tiered sentence, so the punishment fits the crime.”

While there was bipartisan support for the bill in the Senate, the House is proving to be more difficult. With the funnel deadline Friday, any bills that do not make it out of committee will not make it to a vote on the House floor this year.

As of Monday, the bill was assigned to a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee. The subcommittee must review the bill and submit a polished version to the overall committee by today for a vote to bring the bill to the House floor. Haught has attended every House Judiciary Committee meeting since she arrived in Des Moines two weeks ago; she hopes her persistence will get the bill through the House.

“I’m hoping they look at the vote in the Senate, and that it was unanimous,” Haught said. “This next week is going to be crucial.”

But some Democratic lawmakers in the House have expressed disappointment with the slow progress from the House Judiciary Committee on the bill.

“Unanimously means both sides voted for it, and we can’t even get it brought up on this side,” Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said.

While many Democrat supporters of the bill chastise House Republicans for the lack of speed, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, says the issue has not held as much significance to lawmakers on the committee as other bills.

“This hasn’t been a great source of attention within the committee,” he said. “But I’ve made it through the bill, and I understand what it does. I’ve got some questions and concerns about the bill in its current form.”

While the bill faces tough waters this week in Des Moines, student advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness at the University of Iowa also have voiced their concern over the current criminalization law.

“The HIV/AIDS population in Iowa … is a very small group of people trying to have something passed … and many of them, unfortunately, come from a lower-status background where they really don’t think they have a voice,” said Steven Williams, the president of ONE at the UI, an advocacy group for HIV/AIDS and other issues mainly in Africa. “It’s our duty as other healthy individuals to stand up and [support this bill].”

Haught said she believes the bipartisanship that brought the bill passage through the Senate will be the same salvation for the bill in the House.

“Hopefully, [House members] will talk to their senators and go, ‘Why did you support this?’ ” she said. “Then we can have the conversation on the negotiations and the compromise we put into the bill to get it passed.”


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