Thirty-four U.S. states and territories have criminal statutes that allow prosecutions for allegations of non-disclosure, exposure and (although not required) transmission of the HIV virus. Prosecutions have occurred in at least 39 states under HIV-specific criminal laws or general criminal laws. Most of these laws treat HIV exposure as a felony, and people convicted under these laws are serving sentences as long as 30 years or more. The focus of these laws on knowledge of status as a key element of an HIV-related crime, rather than on intent and capacity to transmit HIV, is a classic example of an inadequate mens rea, or criminal intent, requirement and overly expansive criminalization. In sum, these laws do not comport with well-established American criminal law principles concerning intent, harm, and proportionality.
The bulk of HIV criminalization laws were enacted prior to the availability of effective antiretroviral therapy for HIV, which not only can extend significantly the lifespan of those with HIV, increasing the probability that a person with HIV never develops AIDS, but also has been shown in studies to dramatically reduce the risk of transmission by those carrying the virus. An obvious prerequisite to securing appropriate treatment is getting tested to determine if one is carrying the HIV virus. Being aware of one’s HIV status is also a necessary, and all too often sufficient, threshold fact making one vulnerable to prosecution under these laws. That, however, creates a powerful disincentive to getting tested for the virus. According to the President’s Advisory Council on AIDS, “Public health leaders and global policy makers agree that HIV criminalization is unjust, bad public health policy and is fueling the epidemic rather than reducing it.”
For additional background information, attached are (i) the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) Resolution on Ending Federal and State HIV-Specific Criminal Law, Prosecutions, and Civil Commitments (PDF), (ii) the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Best Practices Guide to Reform HIV-Specific Criminal Laws to Align with Scientifically-Supported Factors (PDF), and (iii) the Positive Justice Project1 Guiding Principles for Eliminating Disease-Specific Criminal Laws (PDF).
WHEREAS, there are more than 1.2 million people in the United States living with HIV, and an estimated 156,000 of those people are unaware of their infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and
WHEREAS, the United States has led the world in HIV prosecutions; and
WHEREAS, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has long been concerned with the trend in the criminal law away from the moral anchor of adequate mens rea, or criminal intent, requirements; and
WHEREAS, the focus on knowledge of status as a key element of an HIV-related crime, rather than on intent and capacity to transmit the virus, is a classic example of an inadequate mens rea, or criminal intent, requirement and overly expansive criminalization; and
WHEREAS, punishments imposed for non-disclosure of HIV status, exposure, or HIV transmission are grossly out of proportion to the actual harm inflicted and reinforce the fear and stigma associated with HIV; and
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WHEREAS, such laws constitute bad public health policy, erecting disincentives to getting tested for HIV when modern and effective antiretroviral therapy for HIV not only can extend significantly the lifespan of those with HIV, increasing the probability that a person with HIV remains healthy and never develops AIDS, but also can dramatically reduce the risk of transmission by those carrying the virus; and
WHEREAS, according to the CDC and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, “most of these laws do not account for actual scientifically-supported level of risk by type of activities engaged in or risk reduction measures undertaken” and “many of these state laws criminalize behaviors that the CDC regards as posing either no or negligible risk for HIV transmission even in the absence of risk reduction measures”; and
WHEREAS, HIV criminalization was bad criminal justice policy prior to the advent of modern and effective antiretroviral therapy, and remains so today; and
WHEREAS, NACDL’s core mission includes working to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of a crime as well as promoting the proper and fair administration of criminal justice; therefore
BE IT RESOLVED that NACDL hereby opposes all laws that base criminal liability and/or penalty enhancements on one’s HIV status rather than on the intent to harm another individual. Accordingly, NACDL supports the repeal of such criminal laws as fundamentally unfair and unjust. Recognizing that outright repeal can result in the abusive use of existing statutes, NACDL also supports modernization of these criminal laws to incorporate strong principles of intent and proportional punishment.
1 The Positive Justice Project is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to end HIV criminalization in the United States. It is a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy, a national legal and policy resource and strategy center working to reduce the impact of HIV on marginalized communities and to secure the human rights of people affected by HIV. Organizational members of the Positive Justice Project Steering Committee include the Center for HIV Law and Policy, the National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and the National LGBTQ Task Force.
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