32 States Have HIV/AIDS Criminalizing Laws Based on ‘Outdated Fears’

Office of Senator (D-DE) Chris Coons

This June a man in LaFayette, Georgia was charged with “criminal exposure to HIV” because he spat at another man.

Georgia is one of 13 states that have HIV-specific laws making spitting or biting a felony, even though it has been years since the Center for Disease Control declared it;s not possible to transmit HIV via saliva.

There are currently 32 states and two U.S. territories that have similar criminal statutes based on outdated ideas of how HIV is actually transmitted from one person to another.

The “Repeal HIV Discrimination Act” scheduled to be introduced on Monday by Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) would encourage state governments to review and analyze laws that the bill’s supporters says are based on outdated fears. The legislation is the same bill that representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced last May.

“Rather than recognizing that HIV/AIDS is a treatable medical condition, these laws perpetuate the idea that HIV is a deadly weapon and people with HIV/AIDS are dangerous criminals,” Coons said in a statement. “Our laws need to catch up to our science, and this bill would take an important step in that direction,” Senator Coons said.

A United Nations report states HIV criminalization is justified under one condition only: “where individuals maliciously and intentionally transmit or expose others with the express purpose of causing harm.”

The bill being introduced Monday starts by calling for an analysis of the laws that are in the books in order to identify which ones are outdated, but it does not go so far as to state when HIV criminalization is justified.

In 1987, the United States was the first country to implement laws criminalizing HIV transmission and exposure. Since then, dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe followed suit. According to a 2010 report by the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), at least 600 people living with HIV in 24 countries have been convicted under HIV-specific or general criminal laws, with the greatest numbers reported in North America.

The Center for HIV Law and Policy analyzed a large number of cases that involved prosecutions for HIV exposure in the U.S., and found that from 2008 to 2013, “the outcomes that are known often involve draconian penalties, including prison sentences that reach 25 years or more, even when no transmission of HIV occurred.”

In the U.S., HIV disproportionately affects men who have sex with men and people of color. As a result, in some states, HIV-specific criminal laws also disproportionately affect people of color.

In Michigan, many of those convicted of HIV related offenses are African-American men with female partners, a 2012 University of Michigan study found. “Slightly less than half of all defendants were white (48 percent), 37 percent were black and 11 percent were Latino. The majority of defendants (85 percent) were men,” the study said.

H.R. 1843 currently has 34 sponsors with more than 150 organizations endorsing the bill, including the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign and the American Psychological Association.