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New California Law Reduces Penalty for Knowingly Exposing Someone to HIV

“HIV is a public health issue, not a criminal issue," California State Senator Scott Wiener said in support of the bill, which takes effect Jan. 1.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 239, which reduces penalties for knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV.

Under current California law, it is felony offense punishable by 3 to 8 years in prison. The new law, which was signed by Brown on Oct. 6 and takes effect January 1, changes this to a misdemeanor, carrying a 6-month prison term — the same punishment as knowingly exposing someone to other communicable diseases.

The law also reduces the penalty for knowingly donating blood infected with HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Democrats Scott Wiener and Todd Gloria authored the legislation, which was passed in the Senate in May, and approved by the Assembly in early September. The measure was co-sponsored by more than 130 advocacy organizations, including Equality California, the ACLU of California, APLA Health, Black AIDS Institute, Lambda Legal and Positive Women’s Network–USA.

In a press statement in May, Senator Wiener said the bill aims to “modernize” the law in line with advancements in medical treatment for HIV and changing social perceptions.

“Legislators passed a number of laws three decades ago, at the height of the HIV epidemic, that criminalized behaviors of people living with HIV or added HIV-related penalties to existing crimes,” Wiener said. “These laws were based on fear and on the limited medical understanding of the time … In the decades since, societal and medical understanding of HIV has greatly improved. Effective treatments dramatically lengthen and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV — treatments that also nearly eliminate the possibility of transmission.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24 states have laws that “require persons who are aware that they have HIV to disclose their status to sexual partners, and 14 states require disclosure to needle-sharing partners. Twenty-five states criminalize one or more behaviors that pose a low or negligible risk for HIV transmission.”

“HIV is a public health issue, not a criminal issue,” Wiener said. “These felonies, which treat HIV differently than all other serious communicable diseases, stigmatize people living with HIV and discourage people from getting tested and into treatment.”

Sponsors of the bill commended the governor’s actions.

“With the Governor’s signature today, we are helping to reduce the stigma that keeps some from learning their HIV status and getting into treatment to improve their health, extend their lives, and prevent additional infections,” Assembly member Gloria said in a statement. “I want to thank Governor Brown for signing SB 239. This action keeps California at the forefront in the fight to stop the spread of HIV.”

Many Republicans opposed the bill, saying it fails to protect the health and safety of citizens.

"If you look at compliance to prescription medications in this country, it's not very good. Roughly three out of four people don't take the medications the way that their doctors told them they should be taking them," Sen. Jeff Stone, who is also a pharmacist, said on the Senate floor last month. "If you don't take your AIDS medications and you allow for some virus to duplicate and show a presence, then you are able to transmit that disease to an unknowing partner."

LGBTQ advocates called the legislation “landmark.” Melissa Goodman, the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project Director with the ACLU of Southern California, praised the fairness of the new legislation, and emphasized that HIV-specific criminal law has “disproportionately harmed people of color and transgender women.”

Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, said it makes progress toward eliminating social stigma. “When people are no longer penalized for knowing their status, it encourages them to come forward, get tested and get treatment. That’s good for all Californians.”