Washington Legislature ease penalties for HIV exposure

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington Legislature on Tuesday approved a bill that reduces the crime of intentionally exposing a sexual partner to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Supporters of the change to the rarely used law say the current penalties don’t have an effect on reducing transmissions or improving public health. Opponents argued the move diminishes the significance of the impact on a person who is unknowingly infected.

The House passed the bill on a 57-40 vote last month, and the Senate passed it on a 26-23 vote Tuesday. The measure now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee, who supports the bill and is expected to sign it.

Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland said that the bill modernizes criminal statutes and recognizes “advancements in medical science that have rendered HIV a treatable disease.”

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“I realize that this disease evokes fear and emotion even today,” she said. “I understand that the laws that are currently on the books were originally meant to protect people from HIV, yet three decades later we know that instead these laws have only increased the stigma and led to abuse.”

The legislation, which was requested by the state Department of Health, also calls for more intervention from local and state health officers, allowing them to recommend options ranging from testing to counseling. They could even mandate treatment for an individual determined to be placing others at risk.

The Senate rejected a Republican floor amendment that would have maintained the current criminal felony charge, as well as two others that would have imposed a felony charge for people on their second or third conviction.

Republican Sen. Maureen Walsh said there were several elements of the bill that she agreed with, but she couldn’t support it with the reduction of penalties for intentional transmission.

“There is nothing but malice behind a person who would go out and knowingly infect another individual with, frankly, a life sentence,” she said. “And I realize a lot of people are living longer, but they’re spending a lot of money on drugs.”

Under current law, a person can be charged with a felony for exposing or transmitting HIV to another person and could face as much as life in prison and a $50,000 fine, depending on the circumstances. Under the bill approved by the Legislature, that crime becomes a misdemeanor that could carry a penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine if a person is infected. In cases where someone lies about their HIV status, it becomes a gross misdemeanor, with penalties of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. An amendment accepted in the House maintains the felony charge for someone who intentionally transmits HIV to a child or vulnerable adult, and requires them to register as a sex offender.

Between 1986 and 2019, there have been 33 criminal cases filed under the current HIV-related statutes, according to the Department of Health. Three of those cases resulted in a felony conviction.

The Department of Health says there are an estimated 14,744 people in the state living with HIV, with about 81 percent of them virally suppressed, meaning they are unable to transmit the virus.

The Center for HIV Law & Policy says Washington is among 29 states with HIV-specific laws. Once Inslee signs the measure into law, Washington will join seven other states that have reformed or repealed one or more parts of criminal laws specific to HIV.

The proposal is not as expansive as changes made by California, which in 2017 passed a law that reduced penalties for knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor. The California law also reduced charges for a person with HIV who knowingly donates blood, tissue, semen or breast milk from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Other states that have introduced bills this year on reforming HIV-specific laws include Ohio, Florida and Virginia.

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