California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill Friday that lowers from a felony to a misdemeanor the crime of knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV without disclosing the infection.
The measure also applies to those who give blood without telling the blood bank that they are HIV-positive.
Modern medicine allows those with HIV to live longer lives and nearly eliminates the possibility of transmission, according to state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), authors of the bill.
“Today California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue, instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” Wiener said in a statement. “HIV should be treated like all other serious infectious diseases, and that’s what SB 239 does.”
Supporters of the change said the current law requires an intent to transmit HIV to justify a felony, but others noted cases have been prosecuted where there was no physical contact, so there was an argument intent was lacking.
Brown declined to comment on his action.
HIV has been the only communicable disease for which exposure is a felony under California law. The current law, Wiener argued, may convince people not to be tested for HIV, because without a test they cannot be charged with a felony if they expose a partner to the infection.
“We are going to end new HIV infections, and we will do so not by threatening people with state prison time, but rather by getting people to test and providing them access to care,” Wiener said.
Supporters of the bill said women engaging in prostitution are disproportionately targeted with criminal charges, even in cases where the infection is not transmitted.
Republican lawmakers including Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine voted against the bill, arguing it puts the public at risk.
“I’m of the mind that if you purposefully inflict another with a disease that alters their lifestyle the rest of their life, puts them on a regimen of medications to maintain any kind of normalcy, it should be a felony,” Anderson said during the floor debate. “It’s absolutely crazy to me that we should go light on this.”
Anderson said the answer could be to extend tougher penalties to those who expose others to other infectious diseases.