The case of Daniel Hay Lewis, charged with criminal transmission of HIV by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, is not unusual. In fact, according to the executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, the United States “prosecutes more people on the basis of their HIV status than any other country in the world.”
Catherine Hanssens, the center’s executive director, writes in a email that “hundreds of HIV-positive people have been prosecuted and imprisoned for consensual sexual contact, frequently when no infection occurred, and for acts that didn’t and almost certainly wouldn’t have resulted in transmission.”
“A growing number of these people are also being branded as sex offenders,” she adds, “which is life altering on multiple levels, ruining employment opportunities, banning contact with even young relatives without adult supervision, and requiring community registration – all for conduct that is perfectly legal for those who haven’t tested for HIV.”
The Center for HIV Law and Policy published a list that, “although not exhaustive, provides a broad snapshot of the spate of prosecutions for HIV exposure in the United States from 2008 through May2011. The vast majority of the prosecutions listed involve conduct that is either consensual (sex) or poses no significant risk of HIV transmission (spitting, biting).” The list includes seven Florida cases.
Ron Ishoy, communications manager at the Broward state attorney’s office, tells the Independent in an email that “the [Daniel Hay Lewis] case is still with our Felony Case Filing unit. In general, their job on criminal cases is to take the information provided by the law enforcement agency making the arrest and, by looking at all the evidence and circumstances presented, determine if the charges that have been filed are the proper ones. In this case, that is the process that the case is undergoing at this point and we’re not in a position to discuss the matter.”
Hanssens says that any law focused on someone’s disease or disability is completely uncalled for, there is no need for a separate criminal law for HIV and that all available research has demonstrated that there does not appear to be any connection between the number of prosecutions of these laws and reduced HIV infection rates, sexual behavior or the disclosure of one’s HIV status.
She adds that Lewis most certainly did not transmit the virus.
Hanssens says there is a huge misunderstanding of HIV transmission, and lays the blame at the feet of state health officials who have not told the public what the risks of infection actually are, perpetuating the sense that HIV is similar to the common cold.
“After three decades we still have people thinking they will get infected by sneezes and coughs, spits and bites,” Hanssens writes, adding that Florida needs a health official who “stands up and says it is ridiculous to charge someone with criminal transmission under these circumstances.”
The Center for HIV Law and Policy’s Positive Justice Project indicates that 34 states and two U.S. territorities explicitly criminalize HIV exposure through sex, shared needles and, in some jurisdictions, “bodily fluids,” including saliva. In these cases, neither proof of the intent to transmit HIV nor actual transmission are required.
Positive Justice adds that “the common factor in all of these cases is that the criminal defendant knew her/his HIV status.” The Broward arrest report indicates that despite knowing his HIV-positive status, Lewis tried to bite a deputy.
The Florida Independent reported Wednesday that Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti told an LGBT activist that the charge against Lewis, based on the information provided, did not appear to be appropriate.