Gateway to Justice

A new coalition takes up the task of reforming Missouri's draconian HIV criminalization law

by Chip Alfred

It’s a state with a relatively low prevalence of HIV, but a high number of convictions for HIV non-disclosure and some of the nation’s harshest punishments. The outdated statutes in Missouri are rooted in fear and stigma rather than reflecting current science and known risk factors. Known as the “Show Me” state, Missouri and its legal system have shown little mercy for defendants in HIV criminal prosecutions.

Now, the MO HIV Justice Coalition (MHJC) plans to modernize the language in existing HIV-specific statutes, and develop new legislation that takes into account all of the following: intent, actual risk, and mitigating factors such as condom use. With seed money provided by the Missouri Foundation for Health, the coalition was formed in partnership with Empower Missouri, a non-partisan, nonprofit statewide organization that works on addressing social justice issues affecting the citizens of Missouri. Ashley Quinn, Empower Missouri’s Coordinator of Organizational Outreach, primarily focuses on facilitating the development and activities of MJHC. “Empower Missouri is about trying to make government work for people on the ground,” he explains. As for the state of HIV criminalization in the state, “This is one of those things where the laws in the state of Missouri are hindering the way people can do HIV services.” Because of the stiff penalties for HIV non-disclosure, Quinn asserts, people are reluctant to get tested. “We have to eliminate barriers and increase access to testing, which is key in stopping the spread of HIV.”

MHJC, established in March 2016, includes advocates, people living with HIV, and representatives from ASOs and CBOs from across the state. For now, the group conducts bi-weekly conference calls to discuss strategy, how to build the coalition, and to plan upcoming events. Quinn tells A&U MHJC’s first efforts will include educating the public through community forums. “We need to make sure people are aware of the laws and understand how wrong and harmful they are.” The main statute relating to HIV prosecutions in Missouri makes it a B felony (up to fifteen years behind bars) to “act in a reckless manner by exposing another person to HIV without the knowledge and consent of that person.” The means of exposure can include biting and spitting, widely recognized as no-risk behaviors. If “the victim contracts HIV from the contact,” the charge is bumped up to a class A felony, with a maximum penalty of thirty years in prison. To determine actual transmission, judges have relied on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence (neither of which provides conclusive proof), rather than require phylogenetic testing, which can confirm if an accuser and a defendant share similar strains of HIV. The use of condoms is specifically excluded as a defense to a violation of this statute or another statute concerning sex workers. This law essentially turns a class B misdemeanor prostitution charge (thirty days to six months behind bars and a $500 fine) to a class B felony (five to fifteen years in prison) if the sex worker is aware of their HIV-positive status.

“When people wrote the laws originally [1988], they were afraid of an epidemic and trying to do the best they could to help the public welfare,” Quinn remarks. “If people are concerned about public health and safety, locking people up is not the best way to achieve this.” Michael Johnson, a young African-American Missouri college student, is one of those individuals currently behind bars. After a controversial racially-charged 2015 case, Johnson is serving a 30.5-year sentence for “recklessly transmitting HIV” to one man and exposing or attempting to expose four other men to HIV. The jury initially recommended a penalty of 60.5 years, which was then reduced by the judge. Still, Johnson’s punishment is similar to a conviction for second degree murder.

“HIV stigma runs deep here,” Quinn says, hoping to address this with a public awareness campaign that kicks off on World AIDS Day 2016 at an annual community breakfast at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. After that, reps from MHJC will reach out to state legislators for support and seek out prospective sponsors for new legislation. Quinn says he’s encouraged by the coalition’s growth and the dedication of its members. “This really is a grassroots collation of people from across the state volunteering their time. They really care about people living with HIV and about the public health of all Missourians. We know we can write better laws that reflect the knowledge that we have today.”

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A&U welcomes your HIV criminalization story ideas or suggestions. Please contact Chip Alfred, Editor at Large, at [email protected].