Iowa Supreme Court Overturns Conviction For HIV Transmission

Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL
Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL

In a landmark victory, the Iowa Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of Nick Rhoades, who was initially sentenced to 25 years in prison and forced to register as a sex offender. His crime was having sex with another man without disclosing that he was HIV-positive, even though they used a condom in their encounter.

According to the decision, written by Justice David Wiggins, the Court could not justify punishing an individual under an HIV criminalization law when there was practically no risk of transmission: “Based on the state of medicine both now and at the time of the plea in 2009, we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV, regardless of an infected individual’s viral load, when that individual engages in protected anal or unprotected oral sex with an uninfected person.”

The law under which Rhoades was prosecuted relied upon definitions of contact under which transmission of HIV was “possible” — a word with several different legal interpretations. The Court opted to use a definition that “considers the reality of a thing occurring, rather than a theoretical chance,” hoping to prevent depriving a person of his or her liberty on the basis of “something that can only theoretically occur.”

Under this consideration, the original trial did not establish all the facts. It did seem to establish the four conditions for a guilty verdict: Rhoades engaged with intimate contact with the victim, he was HIV-positive at the time, he knew he was HIV-positive at the time, and his partner did not know he was HIV-positive. But that did not tell the full story. “Intimate contact,” under Iowa law, has a specific definition that refers to the “intentional exposure… to a bodily fluid… in a manner that could result in the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus.” Because this was not clarified during the original trial and because Rhoades used a condom during anal sex, the Court concluded that it is unclear there was an “exchange of bodily fluid” in the way required for prosecution under the law.

Moreover, the Court recognized that advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV demand a critical evaluation of how it might actually be transmitted. Wiggins notes, “Rhoades’s viral count was nondetectable, and there is a question of whether it was medically true a person with a nondetectable viral load could transmit HIV through contact with the person’s blood, semen, or vaginal fluid or whether transmission was merely theoretical.” Indeed, a recent study’s results suggest that it is nearly impossible for someone with an undetectable viral load to transmit the virus, even without the use of a condom.

The decision parallels revisions the Iowa legislature made to the state’s HIV criminalization laws earlier this month. Iowa previously had some of the harshest laws in the country, as evidenced by Rhoades’s original sentence in this case. Moving forward, the state’s laws will only prosecute individuals who intend to transmit HIV without another person’s knowledge or consent.

Lambda Legal, who represented Rhoades, suggested that the Court’s decision could motivate the legislature to go even farther. Scott Schoettes, the organization’s HIV Project Director, hopes it will lead to the law being brought “fully up to date.” That’s because any law that associates HIV with criminal activity could interfere with advocacy efforts to fight the on-going epidemic. Numerous studies have found that such laws discourage individuals from getting tested because they can’t be prosecuted if they don’t know their status. Fewer people are diagnosed, fewer people are treated, and fewer precautions are taken to avoid further spreading the virus. Thus, laws that are designed to prohibit the spread of the virus may have the opposite effect, while further stigmatizing people who are living with HIV.