Legislators debate reducing criminal charge for intentional HIV exposure

SEATTLE – A controversial bill working its way through Olympia aims to change how the law deals with someone convicted of intentionally spreading HIV to an unknowing sex partner.

For now, state law classifies the crime as a felony which includes serious jail time and fines. The new legislation would reduce the severity of the crime to a gross misdemeanor.

Proponents say it’s time the law catches up with modern medicine and science.

“It is a different era now than it was 30 years ago,” said Gay City executive director Fred Swanson. “We need to continue that progress.”

The non-profit in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has been serving and advocating for LGBTQIA+ and straight people and providing resources and healthcare without judgment or shame for more than two decades.

In that time, Swanson says, there have been enormous political and medical changes.

“We have the formula for actually ending HIV and criminal transmission is not in that formula, in fact criminal transmission prohibits people from getting tested,” he said. “It incites fear and stigma and we know stigma is pretty much the biggest enemy right now that keeps people from getting tested.”

Today in our state, intentionally spreading HIV to an unknowing sex partner is a felony and those convicted could face life in jail and huge fines. The new bill in Olympia aims to reduce that crime and its consequences.

“Fifteen years ago, these conversations were a lot harder to have,” said Representative Noel Frame during debate earlier this week.

Senate Bill 5562 is currently being debated but earlier this week it passed in the House after intense debate.

“We can also say that AIDS is not the same disease that it was in those years,” said Rep. Eileen Cody. “At that time, it was a death sentence. It’s time to update our statutes.”

But some lawmakers worry reducing consequences for intentionally transmitting HIV is not the right answer.

“I understand where people are coming,” said Rep. Michelle Caldier of Port Orchard.

Caldier fought to defeat the bill claiming in some cases where prosecutors can’t prove rape, the punishment for intentionally transmitting HIV provides harsh punishments.

“What do you say to a 14-year-old little girl who was raped by a man who had HIV? That’s what happened in Kitsap County,” Caldier said.

“It’s time for this law to change,” said Swanson.

Swanson believes removing the stigma and fear around HIV is the best way to stop its spread and at the same time encouraging more people, even those who don’t identify as being gay, to get tested.

“We have laws to prosecute assault, rape, any kind of interactions that this is intended to solve for,” he said. “By specifically calling out HIV and stigmatizing this disease in this way, in ways they haven’t with any other disease, makes no sense.”

Also included in the bill is language that would allow minors 14 and older to seek medical advice and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases without requiring their parent’s consent.