OLYMPIA — Washington state health officials want to change a rarely used law that makes it a felony to intentionally expose a sexual partner to HIV, saying the current penalties don’t have an impact on reducing transmissions or improving public health.
The state Department of Health has proposed legislation that would make such exposure a misdemeanor, asserting the state’s HIV laws aren’t reflective of current treatments and perpetuate a stigma against people living with the virus.
“When we allow stigma to permeate, when we have a statutory framework in which people are afraid to come forward about their HIV status, we put the public health at risk, and individuals at significant risk,” Seattle Democratic Rep. Nicole Macri, a lead proponent of the measure, told the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee during a hearing Friday. A committee vote is expected Monday.
The proposal also calls for more intervention from local and state health officers, allowing them to recommend options ranging from testing to counseling, and even mandate treatment for an individual determined to be placing others at risk.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center and a member of the committee, said she supports efforts to de-stigmatize HIV but said reducing the penalty for intentional transmission diminishes the significance of the impact on a person who is infected, even with the advancements in HIV treatment.
“The reality is, if I have to take medicine every day — and maybe my insurance will pay for it, maybe it won’t — I think we need to send the message that you can’t just willy-nilly go around spreading this disease,” Rivers said. “There has to be a consequence.”
The Department of Health says an estimated 14,744 people in the state are living with HIV, with about 81% of them virally suppressed, meaning they are unable to transmit the virus.
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 proposed bill, that crime would become a misdemeanor that could carry a penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. If someone lies about their HIV status, it becomes a gross misdemeanor if a person is infected, with penalties of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Between 1986 and 2019, 33 criminal cases were filed under the current HIV-related statutes, according to the Department of Health. Three of those cases resulted in a felony conviction.
The Democratic-controlled House passed the measure with a 57-40 vote last week but accepted an amendment on the floor that 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.
The Center for HIV Law & Policy says Washington is among 29 states with HIV-specific laws. If the proposed measure becomes law, Washington would 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.
The proposed change in Washington state criminal law would create an “appropriate balance for our times,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman told the committee. Under the change, health officers would have expanded authority to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and criminal penalties would still exist for those who intentionally spread HIV, he said.