Georgia could overhaul HIV laws for first time since AIDS crisis

Bible Way Ministries International Pastor Monte Norwood gets his blood drawn while being tested for HIV/AIDs in the Aids Healthcare Foundation mobile testing bus on Dec. 11, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Legislation moving through the Georgia House would overhaul HIV laws for the first time in a generation, reflecting changing public attitudes even as the state struggles to tamp down the transmission of new cases.

House Bill 719, seeks to lower the state's criminal penalties for HIV-positive people who have sex, share needles or donate blood without making known their status. Those who don't disclose face felony charges and up to 10 years in prison even if the virus is not transmitted. The new bill would downgrade penalties to misdemeanors punishable by up to a year behind bars, but only if criminal intent to infect someone can be proven.

The bipartisan legislation sailed through the Republican-led Health and Human Services Committee unanimously Feb. 25, and the powerful House Rules panel is expected to consider it soon. Though no opposition has organized, some lawmakers question the wisdom of the move.

Supporters of the measure say Georgia’s HIV laws are ineffective, scientifically outdated and stigmatizing.

They “essentially say that people who are living with HIV are bad people and that we should be leery of them, that they have bad intentions,” said Eric Paulk, deputy director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Georgia Equality.

The state’s HIV laws trace back to the late 1980s, when AIDS panic gripped the nation and legislators faced intense pressure to act. Nearly three-dozen states passed similar laws. Proponents said the statutes were necessary to protect unknowing victims and law enforcement officers.

One Georgia law deems it felony assault on a police officer by spitting, biting or throwing bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or feces, with the intent to transmit HIV and is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

More than 571 people have been arrested under Georgia's laws between 1988 and September 2017, according to the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, or roughly 27 people a year.

Proponents of HB 719 say the legislation — which would also eliminate HIV-specific penalties for assaulting officers — will help bring Georgia laws in line with current science, which finds negligible potential for transmitting HIV through spitting, biting or throwing fluids. The virus is mainly transmitted through unprotected sex or sharing needles, according to the CDC.

Changing politics

HIV is a major problem in the South and metro Atlanta in particular.

Georgia had the nation's fourth-highest rate of new diagnoses in 2018, with 2,552 new HIV cases, according to the CDC. The Williams Institute estimated that Fulton and DeKalb counties were home to nearly half of the state's HIV-positive population.

President Donald Trump has pledged to end the spread of HIV by 2030, and his administration allocated nearly a half-million dollars in October to help four metro Atlanta counties manage its cases.

Georgia lawmakers have for years tried to overhaul the state’s laws, but proponents think the political climate is right to advance legislation this year.

Legislators legalized needle exchange programs last year, and a state study committee in 2017 recommended eliminating many of the state's HIV-related penalties, with exceptions for sexual assaults and clear intent to infect.

Influential law enforcement groups, including the Georgia Sheriffs Association, have remained neutral about HB 719, which could boost its chances of advancing in the Republican-dominated statehouse. A spokeswoman for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia said the group provided assistance in drafting the bill but will not be taking a position on it.

Some Republican lawmakers, however, are wary of downgrading offenses related to knowingly spreading HIV to a misdemeanor.

“I have heard from a number of members who have concerns with reducing the penalties for those individuals who have received an HIV diagnosis and still knowingly engage in intercourse with a partner without notifying the partner of their diagnosis,” said Trey Kelley of Cedartown, the House GOP’s whip, responsible for ensuring party discipline on votes.

“These actions could have devastating lifelong consequences to the unknowing partner, and our law should have strict penalties to serve as a deterrent to this type of behavior,” Kelly added.

Nina Martinez, an activist with the Georgia HIV Justice Coalition who supports the bill, said the status quo is dangerous.

“People living with HIV have been harmed or killed for disclosing,” said Martinez, who last year became the first-known HIV-positive kidney donor. “Disclosure may be the morally right thing to do, but non-disclosure cannot be construed to be demonstrative of criminal intent to transmit to another person.”

Several states, including Texas, Iowa and California, have changed their HIV laws in recent years, many compelled by cases of racial inequalities surrounding such statutes.

A notorious case played out several years ago in Missouri, where Michael L. Johnson, an African American former college wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after six former sex partners, half of them white, testified that he lied about his HIV-positive status. Johnson’s original sentence was longer than the state’s average for second-degree murder, according to The New York Times, and Johnson was released from prison after an appeals court ruled his trial was “fundamentally unfair.”

In a well-known 2005 Georgia case, the 26-year-old head of the Emory School of Medicine’s Honor Council was sentenced to two years in prison and eight years probation for engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners, even though none tested positive for HIV.

House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, one of the bill’s sponsors, said “it’s the right time to do something” on the issue.

“I think there’s been a lot of research that has helped back up the kind of changes that we want to make,” Cooper said. “Sometimes you need that kind of research and medical backup to get things changed.”

HIV and AIDS today

Advances in treatment options mean HIV and AIDS are no longer the death sentence they once were. A widely-available medication can help block transmission of HIV during sex, but it’s pricey and harder to access in poor and rural areas.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks the South first for rates of new HIV cases compared to other regions of the country. In 2014, the South had an HIV diagnosis rate of 18.5 per 100,000 people, compared to 14.2 in the Northeast, 11.2 in the West and 8.2 in the Midwest. In 2018, Georgia had the nation’s fourth-highest number of HIV diagnoses among adults and adolescents, according to the CDC, with 2,552 new cases.

Overall, the rate of new HIV infections in the U.S. has reduced by more than two-thirds since the height of the epidemic in the mid-1980s, but the CDC still describes the situation an “epidemic.”

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