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HIV-specific criminal law legislation has materialized in three states

In opposition to President Barack Obama’s Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), HIV-specific criminal law legislation has popped up in three states in the last two months.

Michigan Messenger reported on the NHAS in July.

In Nebraska, state lawmakers are debating legislation which would make it a crime for a person who is infected with HIV or Hepatitis to expose law enforcement officials to body fluids. The legislation is so broad it includes those “who should know” their HIV status, meaning those who are infected but do not know it could be charged if the legislation becomes law.

“If this passes, an HIV-positive prisoner who sneezes in the direction of a guard could be charged with a felony,” says René Bennett-Carlson, managing attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York City. She points out that the law covers all body discharges, including urine, feces, mucus and others which do not contain HIV and this pose no risk of transmission at all. She also notes the proposed legislation addresses things like saliva and biting, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has declared do not spread HIV.

Over in Utah, lawmakers are discussing changing a disclosure law for prostitutes and johns. Under current law, a person with HIV who engages in prostitution either as the provider or the client, must be warned in a formal hearing with a health official, a police officer and a judge, that continuing to engage in the behavior could be prosecuted for a felony. Lawmakers want to make it easier for law enforcement to charge HIV-positives by shifting the way a person is informed from the hearing to a simple document.

Bennett-Carlson says the shift could be abused.

As Michigan Messenger reported this week, similar documents being used by local health departments have come under fire as violating the Constitutional rights of HIV-positive residents of the state.

And finally, during a debate on keeping the death penalty in Montana, a state law maker said a perfect reason to keep the law in place was because prisoners were making paper darts which they dip their blood in and then shoot them at guards in the prison.

“Rep. Janna Taylor’s remark is ignorance in the first degree,” said Catherine Hanssens, executive director of CHLP. “Quite frankly, it is typical of the ignorance we had to deal with decades ago, early in the epidemic, when little was known about how the virus was transmitted. It is astonishing that an elected official today could be so fundamentally uninformed.”

Hanssens was not the only expert to decry the Montana law maker’s statement.

“Ms Taylor’s statement just shows the need for greater support and funding for HIV education and prevention in the State of Montana. Unfortunately, misinformation such as this is all too prevalent, leading to pointless discrimination and myth-based fears and policies,” said Gregory Smith, co-chair of the Montana HIV/AIDS Community Planning Group, a licensed mental health counselor and a person living with HIV. “After 30 years of dealing with HIV, the public should be much better informed about its transmission. No wonder HIV infection rates haven’t stopped.”

Julie M. Scofield, executive director of the National Association of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), said, “My plea to Rep. Taylor and legislators at all levels concerned about HIV is to do your homework, talk with public health officials and get the facts. Spreading fear about HIV transmission will only set us back in the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Montana and every other state in the U.S.”

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