Missouri lawmakers push for HIV decriminalization

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JEFFERSON CITY - Some Missouri lawmakers say they haven't given up on a bipartisan bill designed to change Missouri’s criminal code on people with HIV. It didn't make it through this year’s legislative session.

Under the current law, it’s a crime to “act in a reckless manner by exposing another person to HIV without the knowledge and consent of that person to be exposed to HIV.”

Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, the bill's sponsor, said that leaves people with HIV legally vulnerable.

“If someone comes and presses charges and says, ‘hey, I didn’t know he had the HIV virus,’ then it’s up to the court to decide, well, did he tell her or vice versa?” she said. “So it becomes a he said, she said, which is incredibly difficult for our prosecutors.”

Penalties can range up to 30 years in prison. If the accuser does not contract HIV, the person charged faces five-to-15 years in prison. For perspective, a person convicted of certain vehicular manslaughter charges faces just three-10 years.

Lawmakers revised the code in 1997 and 2002, but the foundation of the law dates back to 1988. Since then, treatments have advanced significantly and allowed people with HIV live longer and healthier lives.

According to the CDC, people living with HIV can now take medication to suppress the virus in their system so they have "effectively no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to HIV-negative partners.”

Rehder said the current laws discourage people from getting tested for HIV.

“If you don’t know your status, then you can’t be prosecuted,” she said. “For a healthier Missouri, we definitely need to change our laws.”

There are nearly 13,000 people in Missouri living with HIV. Last year, the CDC put 12 Missouri counties on its most at-risk HIV/HCV outbreak watchlist, including mid-Missouri's Crawford County.

Rehder’s bill would have repealed the 1988 law and replaced every mention of HIV with “a serious infectious or communicable disease.”

“No other virus is specifically named in statutes,” she said. “It’s very discriminatory for those living with HIV. It’s not a crime to spread Hepatitis C, which is very contagious and hard medically on a person.”

Rehder said the bill still takes into account there are people who might infect someone deliberately.

“We absolutely want someone prosecuted if they’re maliciously transferring HIV,” she said. “Our bill still has penalties in it.”

Devin Hursey, of Empower Missouri, said the current law is outdated, vague and can be used against people.

“There’s no reason why someone living with HIV should be facing up to 30 years for something that is not going to kill someone,” he said.

Hursey, who is HIV positive, said the laws need to be updated, but he's not sure Rehder's measure is the best approach because it "doesn't serve everyone living with HIV."

"I would not want it to pass. Not at all," he said. "People living with HIV, we speak in one voice saying we all need to be considered when we're fixing this law."

HB 167 follows last year’s attempt to pass a similar measure, but the 2018 version never made it out of committee. Rehder's bill ran out of time by the end of this year’s legislative session, but made it to the floor for debate, so she said she plans to reintroduce it next year.

“I think it’s important that we have this discussion on the floor,” Rehder said. “I think next year we’ll be very successful in getting it out of the House and over to the Senate.”