On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously decided to drop the criminal case against Daniel James Rick, an HIV-positive man who transmitted the virus to a sexual partner after disclosing his HIV status. The Court upheld a lower decision that overturned Rick’s felony conviction.
In 2011, Rick was convicted with attempted first-degree assault after he had multiple sexual encounters with a man who eventually tested positive for HIV. Rick said that he disclosed his HIV status to the man before they engaged in sexual activity, and assumed that his partner probably also had the virus if he was willing to have unprotected sex. But the man said that Rick never told him he was HIV-positive. Even though the jury agreed that Rick was telling the truth about disclosing his status to his partner, they still convicted him of a felony under state law.
The Supreme Court agreed with a lower court’s decision that the current state law regarding the transfer of communicable diseases is too vague, and Rick shouldn’t be convicted under it. The opinion urged lawmakers to reconsider and amend the legislation.
Lambda Legal, as well as other LGBT advocacy groups, say that improperly using criminal law to prosecute HIV-positive individuals ultimately violates the rights of those people to engage in consensual sex after they’ve told their partners about their infection.
“We’re relieved that the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled in favor of liberty and justice, rejecting the government’s misapplication of its communicable disease law to the facts of this case,” Christopher Clark, a senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “The State should not dictate with whom and how people choose to engage in intimate sexual relations.”
Multiple states have HIV criminalization laws on the books to discourage HIV-positive individuals from knowingly spreading the virus. But when it comes to ensuring public health and preventing the spread of HIV, that legal tactic largely backfires. Several studies have found that criminalizing HIV doesn’t actually help lower transmission rates, but actually makes it less likely that HIV-positive individuals will get themselves tested out of fear of prosecution. They also disproportionately harm transgender people. The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS has recommended repealing them, saying they’re based on an outdated scientific understanding of the virus.
LGBT advocates agree. “The rabid prosecution of Mr. Rick — regardless of the facts presented at trial — shows that people living with HIV are vulnerable and will continue to be unfairly targeted until laws like this are reformed to reflect the shared responsibility for the prevention of disease transmission,” Lambda Legal’s HIV Director explained.