JEFFERSON CITY — LaTrischa Miles doesn’t spit when she runs.
A mother of three, the treatment adherence supervisor at Kansas City Health Center was diagnosed with HIV in 1995. She remembers the day like her birthday, and she remembers it when she’s running.
“Running is not a pretty sport. You see a lot of things when you’re running. You smell a lot of things when you’re running,” Miles said. “A lot of runners get dry mouth, and they spit, a lot. But I dare not. Because if I spit ... I may get arrested at the finish line.”
Current Missouri law makes it a felony for a person knowingly infected with the human immunodeficiency virus to “recklessly” expose someone else without their knowledge or consent — whether or not the person meant to do so, and whether or not the victim contracted HIV. The law lists sex, needle-sharing and biting as methods of transfer.
It’s not clear whether spitting during a half-marathon violates the law, but that uncertainty is part of the problem. “As a person living with HIV,” Miles said, “I’ve lived in the shadow of these criminal laws.”
But for the second year in a row, Reps. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, and Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, have filed separate but similar bills to modernize what some call the “criminal HIV exposure” law.
Each proposal would apply penalties currently reserved for exposing someone to HIV to other “communicable diseases,” such as hepatitis C or HPV, and minimize the punishment for those convicted. The proposals also update the law’s language to reflect current understanding about how HIV is transmitted. According to the Mayo Clinic, methods include blood and sex.
Miles and a slew of public health advocates, students and Missourians living with HIV testified in a House committee hearing Monday in support of the proposals. The witnesses emphasized the need for a revised bill that would reduce stigma, encourage people to know their status and reflect modern science.
“So much has changed. HIV is no longer a death sentence. It’s a chronic disease. It’s a human disease,” Miles said. “Persons living with HIV that once took 16 pills a day … now have the option to take one pill a day.”
Lawmakers passed the original bill in the late ’80s, an era when the rampant spread of AIDS through sex made lovers into killers, and the law ensured they would be punished accordingly. Mere exposure can lead to a class B felony conviction. If the victim contracts HIV, the charge bumps up to a class A felony, punishable by up to 30 years or life in prison. It’s the same consequence in Missouri for murder.
Both proposals would consider whether the person with a communicable disease intended to transmit it to someone else, and the consequences would be less severe. Rehder’s bill makes knowingly exposing another person to a communicable disease a class C felony; if transmission occurs, the charge becomes a class B felony.
“For comparison’s sake, if you’re driving while intoxicated and hurt someone but don’t kill them in Missouri, it’s a class C felony,” Rehder said. “If you’re driving while intoxicated and in an act of criminal negligence you cause the death of someone, then it’s a class B felony, so that makes it more consistent.”
McCreery’s bill offers a less severe punishment, diminishing the consequences for exposing another person to a communicable disease to a class B misdemeanor — or a class A misdemeanor if the victim contracts the disease.
The severity of the current law also serves as a disincentive for people to know their HIV status, Rehder said. If a person doesn’t know they have HIV, they can’t be convicted of exposing the virus to another person.
And, Rehder said, people who are unaware of their positive status are responsible for 90 percent of HIV transfer — and that ignorance is a public health issue.
“The bottom line is, we want people to get tested and know their status and get treatment,” she said.
The proposals offer a few more updates based on the scientific advancements that have happened in the last 30 years. For one, they’ve removed “biting” from the list as a way to transfer HIV. In fact, transmitting HIV via biting is extremely rare — so rare that the CDC notes it’s only happened when the bite led to “severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood.”
McCreery’s bill removes the current law’s enhanced punishments for HIV-positive sex workers; Rehder’s does not address it. McCreery’s bill also eliminates punishments for a person with HIV or hepatitis who endangers a correctional or mental health employee.
The current law lists exposure to feces, urine or saliva as a means for transmission. Rehder’s version no longer specifically penalizes HIV or hepatitis and applies only in the case of exposure to “bodily fluids ... scientifically shown to be a known means of transmission of a serious infectious or communicable disease.”
Rehder acknowledged that neither proposal is perfect, and the final product may lie somewhere between the two.
“We’re working closely together to present Missouri-specific options to update Missouri’s antiquated HIV laws,” McCreery said in an interview after the hearing. “We wanted to send a strong message to Missourians that this is a nonpartisan issue.”
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.