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The laws “place all of the responsibility on one party: the party that’s HIV-positive,” said Scott Schoettes, a lawyer who supervises HIV litigation for Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group.
Almost a year later, in a Black Hawk County courtroom, Judge Bradley Harris peered down at Rhoades from his bench.“One thing that makes this case difficult is you don’t look like our usual criminals,” Harris said. But you created a situation that was just as dangerous as anyone who did that.” The judge meted out Rhoades’ sentence: 25 years in prison.“Often times for the court it is easy to tell when someone is dangerous. His crime: having sex without first disclosing he had HIV.The laws, these experts say, could exacerbate this problem: If people can be imprisoned for knowingly exposing others to HIV, their best defense may be ignorance.Such laws, then, provide a powerful disincentive for citizens to get tested and learn if they carry the virus.People with HIV have even done time for spitting, scratching or biting.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spitting and scratching cannot transmit HIV, and transmission through biting “is very rare and involves very specific circumstances” — namely, “severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood.” Many law enforcement officials and legislators defend these laws, saying they deter people from spreading the virus and set a standard for disclosure and precautions in an ongoing epidemic.They can just wait for their partner to reveal their status and not, instead, take steps to protect themselves.” Schoettes also says that the laws unfairly single out HIV, further stigmatizing and reinforcing misconceptions about living with the virus.“There’s no reason why we should be singling out HIV for this kind of treatment,” he said. Department of Justice has opened at least 49 investigations into alleged HIV discrimination.A national group of AIDS public health officials later submitted a brief estimating that the odds of Rhoades infecting Plendl were “likely zero or near zero.” After his lawyers petitioned the court, Rhoades’ prison sentence was changed to five years’ probation.But for the rest of his life — he is 39 — he will remain registered as an aggravated sex offender who cannot be alone with anyone under the age of 14, not even his nieces and nephews. Over the last decade, there have been at least 541 cases in which people were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, criminal charges for not disclosing that they were HIV-positive, according to a Pro Publica analysis of records from 19 states. Defendants in these cases were often sentenced to years — sometimes decades — in prison, even when they used a condom or took other precautions against infecting their partners.In September, a disability rights group accused the Pea Ridge, Ark., school district of kicking out three siblings after officials learned that members of their family had HIV. The school district did not respond to requests for interviews but issued a statement acknowledging that it had “required some students to provide test results regarding their HIV status in order to formulate a safe and appropriate education plan for those children.” In romantic or sexual settings, people with HIV often report fear of rejection, abandonment and stigmatization.