By Sarah Lehr
In 2012, a 27-year-old woman called police to the Wagon Wheel motel in Boardman to report that her boyfriend had hit her.
The woman ended up being arrested and charged with a second-degree felony herself.
The boyfriend, 50, told police they had been arguing because the woman had just informed him she was HIV positive. He said this upset him because “they have had unprotected sexual relations several times,” a police report states.
Under a 2000 Ohio law, it is a felony for a person with knowledge of their own positive HIV status not to disclose that status to a sexual partner before having sex. Violation is punishable by up to eight years in prison. Violators may be required to register as sex offenders.
There are also Ohio laws increasing the penalties for prostitution if the sex worker or the customer is knowingly HIV positive.
By noon the next day, the Wagon Wheel story was all over the local news.
Lisa Kiriazis, a social worker at the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry in Youngstown, was aghast. She said she knew the boyfriend was already aware of the woman’s HIV status because the couple had been to the clinic together multiple times.
The charge against the woman, felonious assault, ended up being dismissed due to issues with the “credibility of the alleged victim,” according to a Boardman court judgment entry.
A judge found the boyfriend guilty on a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge.
Even though she was spared criminal punishment, Kiriazis felt the damage to the woman’s life had already been done. She said the woman moved away to escape the shame. Kiriazis observed that Valley news outlets were eager to cover the initial arrest, but did not publish updates after a judge dismissed the case.
Ohio is one of more than 30 states with laws penalizing HIV-positive people who are seen as contributing to the spread of the virus. Human immunodeficiency virus has no cure and can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, if left untreated.
Assistant Mahoning County Prosecutor Michael Yacovone said he has prosecuted a few cases under Ohio’s HIV disclosure law.
He declined to comment on whether he views the law as “effective.”
“The law is the law,” Yacovone said. “I will say that the victims are happy this law is in place to protect them. I think they have the right to know.”
Groups including the American Medical Association and the Obama-era Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS have advised reform, however, arguing that such laws create counterproductive stigma against those living with HIV and do not reduce the rates of transmission.
“The law really does not match the current science,” said Daniel Wakefield, Urusline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry associate director. “Since the 1980s, the conversation has shifted to people living with HIV rather than dying from AIDS.”
To establish informed consent, an HIV-positive person should disclose their status to sexual partners, Wakefield acknowledged.
Still, he noted that the law does not take into account intent and punishes the accused even if the sexual encounter does not result in HIV transmission. People can determine if they have HIV through a test of blood or saliva.
The law does not draw distinctions based on the likelihood of transmission, Wakefield added.
It is still punishable, for example, if an HIV-positive person takes medication and has an undetectable level of the virus in their blood. It does not differentiate based on the risk level of the sexual act. Additionally, the law applies regardless of whether the parties involved used a condom, which substantially reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
A notable quirk of the disclosure law is that someone who actually does transmit HIV to someone else cannot be charged if the first person didn’t know they had HIV at the time. A person with knowledge of their own status, however, can be charged even if the virus was not transmitted.
Teaquan Cosper, clinic director at the Ursuline Ministry, believes this discourages people from getting tested.
Clinic workers explain Ohio HIV law to patients and offer them a form that their sexual partners can sign. The form could be used in court to prove disclosure of HIV status.
“They’ll hear that they could go to jail if they know and don’t tell,” Cosper said. “Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’d rather not get tested then.’”
Mayo Schreiber, deputy director at the Center for HIV Law and Policy, contends that, from a public health perspective, taxpayer money is better spent on preventive education and treatment rather than on prosecuting those with HIV.
He noted that HIV is singled out for criminal penalties, unlike other communicable diseases, including other sexually transmitted diseases.
“These laws have mostly affected black people, gay people, drug users,” Schreiber said. “Those are groups of people that are lacking in political capital. If there had been a similar effort, for example, to criminalise herpes, I think you would have seen a swifter backlash.”
The Center for HIV Law and Policy was one of several groups to file an amicus brief in support of a constitutional challenge to Ohio’s HIV statute. The brief argues the law targets “disfavored social groups” and discriminates on the basis of disability. Oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court are set for May.
Stigma, Cosper said, is an obstacle to healthful treatment.
“We have people that don’t even want to come to the doctor’s,” she said. “They don’t want to take medication because they don’t want to have the bottles in their house. They’re so scared someone’s going to find out.”