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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 20 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 25
Iowa Supreme Court reverses HIV conviction
Section One
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Iowa Supreme Court reverses HIV conviction

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a June 13 ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man accused of 'criminal transmission of HIV' after a consensual sexual encounter in 2008.

The defendant in the case, Nick Rhoades, had been convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison and classified as a sex offender.

In June 2008, Rhoades hooked up with Adam Plendl. Rhoades had been diagnosed as HIV-positive ten years earlier, was on medication, and had an undetectable viral load. The two had unprotected oral sex, followed by anal sex using a condom. Rhoades did not disclose his HIV status.

Some days later, Plendl was told by friends that Rhoades was HIV-positive and filed a complaint with police. They arrested Rhoades in September 2008, forced him to undergo HIV testing, and charged him under an Iowa law making it a crime for HIV-positive people to have sex - protected or unprotected - without disclosing their HIV status.

On the advice of his public defender, Rhoades pleaded guilty, without, as he later maintained, being informed of what the consequences of a conviction would actually be.

Although his sentence was subsequently suspended, and he was released from prison, he was required to serve five years of probation during which his sex life was monitored by state officials, and he was required to register as a sex offender.

In March 2010 Rhoades filed an Application for Post-Conviction Relief, arguing that the attorney who advised him to plead guilty had failed to inform him of the specifics of the statute, resulting in his conviction for a crime he did not in fact commit.

In December 2011, an Iowa district court denied the application. Lambda Legal then agreed to represent Rhoades in his appeal, and argued the case on his behalf in the Iowa Supreme Court in March 2014.

In reversing the conviction, the Court recognized that HIV-positive individuals who have a reduced viral load as a result of effective treatment pose little risk of transmitting HIV.

'Based on the state of medicine both now and at the time of the plea in 2009, we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV, regardless of an infected individual's viral load, when that individual engages in protected anal or unprotected oral sex with an uninfected person,' Justice David Wiggins wrote in his majority opinion.

Christopher Clark, Counsel for Lambda Legal, applauded the court 'for applying the law in light of current medical understanding of how HIV is and is not transmitted.'

'An individual who takes precautions to prevent transmission should not be considered a criminal for choosing to be sexually active, and we are very pleased that the Court agrees,' Clark added.

'The importance of the Iowa Supreme Court's decision cannot be overstated. We look forward to making these arguments again and to taking this Court's clear guidance on the interpretation and application of these types of laws to the many jurisdictions in which HIV criminalization remains a pressing issue.'

Scott Schoettes, HIV Project Director for Lambda Legal, called on Iowa and states with similar laws to update them to reflect current scientific understanding of HIV.

'In light of today's decision, we believe that additional modifications to the state's infectious disease law should be considered,' Schottes said.

'Great strides were made through the law's recent amendment, and we are hopeful that today's decision - acknowledging the effectiveness of various HIV prevention measures - will fuel the Iowa Legislature's clear desire to bring the state's law fully up to date.

'Thirty-nine states have HIV-specific criminal statutes or have brought HIV-related criminal charges resulting in more than 160 prosecutions in the United States in the past four years. Among other things, HIV criminalization perpetuates the many myths and misconceptions that fuel other types of discrimination against people living with HIV. It sends an inaccurate message regarding prevention responsibility, creates a disincentive to getting tested, and may actually discourage disclosure of HIV status.'

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