Iowa is First State to Reform HIV Criminalization Statute

Matty Smith at the HIV Is Not A Crime conference  (Source:Sean Strub)

Matty Smith at the HIV Is Not A Crime conference (Source:Sean Strub)

On May 30, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed into law Senate File 2297, bi-partisan legislation that will modernize Iowa’s HIV criminal transmission statute to make the statute consistent with contemporary science, improve public health and lessen stigmatization of people with HIV.

Of the 34 U.S. states and territories with “HIV-specific” criminal laws, Iowa has now become the first to repeal its statute. Most of these laws were passed years ago, when less was known about the real routes and risks of HIV transmission and before effective treatment made HIV a chronic but manageable illness and dramatically lessened the risk of transmission.

“It has been five years of work by advocates and public health, but it was worth the effort,” said Nick Rhoades, a Plainfield, Iowa, gay man who was convicted under the statute in 2008 and initially sentenced to 25 years in prison and lifetime sex offender registration. Rhoades’s case is presently on appeal before the Iowa Supreme Court and a decision is expected soon.

The new legislation includes a clause that will retroactively remove Rhoades and others convicted under the previous statute from required sex offender registration.

Donald Bogardus of Waterloo was convicted earlier this year under the statute and because of the required sex offender registration, lost his job as a nursing assistant.

“I feel like I’ve got a new lease on life, my job was everything to me and I can’t wait to go back to work,” he said.

Neither Rhoades or Bogardus, or the vast majority of people prosecuted for “HIV crimes,” are ever accused of transmitting HIV; criminalization statutes typically make it a crime to not disclose one’s HIV status in certain circumstances, regardless of whether there was a risk of transmission or not.

The effort to modernize the Iowa statute was led by Tami Haught, of Nashua, Iowa, who works with Community Hepatitis/HIV Advocates of Iowa Network (CHAIN). Haught, who has lived with HIV for more than 20 years, is also a member of the board of directors of the Sero Project, a national network of people with HIV fighting stigma and the injustice of HIV criminalization.

“This is an amazing moment,” said Haught. “The legislature’s passage of the bill and Governor Branstad signing it into law will improve the public health of Iowans and enable people with HIV in Iowa to live with greater dignity and less stigma.”

“We are so grateful to the leadership of the Iowa Department of Public Health, Attorney General Tom Miller’s office, key supporters in the legislature who spent a lot of time to understand this issue and explain it to their colleagues, OneIowa and others,” she continued. “Most of all, I am so proud of Iowans with HIV-and their closest allies — who worked together over five challenging years to realize this victory today.”

The new law creates a tiered sentencing system that takes into consideration whether there was intent to infect another person, whether there was any significant risk of transmission, and whether transmission occurred. The bill also encompasses several infectious diseases, making the statute’s classification of infectious diseases consistent with other parts of the Iowa code. The legislature passed it on May 1, in the waning hours of the legislative session.

Sean Strub, the executive director of the Sero Project — and also a native Iowan — commented on the timing of this bill becoming law.

“This coming Monday, June 2, the first national conference on HIV criminalization will start at Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa. It is fitting that we will begin the conference in a state that has shown such leadership in respecting science and the expertise of public health professionals and recognizing the importance of treating people with HIV equally under the law. Today, I’m especially proud to be a native Iowan.”

The Sero Project is a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice. Sero conducts research, raises awareness and mobilizes grassroots communities, policy leaders and advocates to address HIV criminalization.

Sero is also a lead organizer of the first-ever HIV Is Not A Crime conference, a three-day event that will train participants on state advocacy, grassroots organizing, activism, and familiarity with the legal, media, medical, and public health issues related to HIV criminalization statutes. The conference will be held in Grinnell, Iowa from June 2 to 5.

Read the article from EDGE San Francisco.