Iowa High Court Throws Out 25-year Sentence For HIV-Positive Gay Man

By Todd Heywood

DES MOINES, IOWA - The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday threw out a 25-year sentence handed down to Nick Rhoades in 2009 under the state's HIV-specific criminal law.

The ruling sends the case back to the lower courts, where prosecutors will have to prove that Rhoades behavior in 2009 posed an actual risk of transmission of HIV - not a theoretical one. Rhoades was charged for failing to disclose his status during a one-time sexual liaison. Rhoades had an undetectable viral load and wore a condom during anal sex. Experts say an undetectable viral load makes the chance of transmitting the virus near zero. In fact, public health authorities have not identified any case of HIV transmission from a person with an undetectable viral load to an HIV-negative person.

The court determined that the advances of science and medicine in treating and controlling HIV made it impossible for the court to determine with certainty that having sex while HIV-positive was possilbe in transmitting the virus.

"We applaud the Court for applying the law in light of current medical understanding of how HIV is and is not transmitted," said Christopher Clark, Counsel for Lambda Legal. "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."

Lambda, working with local attorneys Joseph C. Glazebrook and Dan L. Johnston with Glazebrook & Moe, LLP based in Des Moines, Iowa, filed the motions for post-conviction relief for Rhoades.

The ruling comes weeks after Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation to make Iowa the first state in the nation to modernize its HIV-specific criminal law. The new law requires proof of intent to transmit to proceed with prosecution for higher felonies, while creating a secondary set of criminal prosecution levels for reckless disregard. The law is no longer specific to HIV, but includes hepatitis, meningitis and TB. The new law also removed the requirement that those convicted register as sex offenders on the state's sex offender registry and back dates the law to remove those, like Rhoades, already convicted.

The Michigan Department of Community Health had no comment about how the ruling might impact discussions related to Michigan's HIV-disclosure law, but did say the department continues to evaluate the law.

"Equality Michigan congratulates Nick Rhoades and his legal team on their landmark victory. In overturning Mr. Rhoades conviction, the Iowa Supreme Court has established an important precedent that science matters when it comes to HIV transmission," said Bryan Victor, a victim advocate at Equality Michigan, in an email statement to Between the Lines."In Michigan, we have an HIV disclosure law that criminalizes those living with HIV, discourages testing and treatment, and is not based on our current scientific understanding of how HIV is transmitted. Just like the Iowa Supreme Court, Equality Michigan believes it is time to modernize our state laws related to HIV and for prosecutors to consider the most up-to-date scientific research when deciding whether to bring charges. No one should be criminalized simply for living with HIV."


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Stigma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. Hearing the words "I'm HIV-positive" made Bryan (names and some details have been changed) freeze.

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