Missouri’s HIV Criminalization Impacts Hundreds

Missouri Department of Corrections facilities like this one have housed HIV-positive people caught up in harsh sentences for “exposing” corrections officials and other state employees to bodily fluids.
Missouri Department of Corrections

Nearly 600 people have been swept up by HIV criminalization laws in Missouri following a gradual increase in penalties targeting individuals living with HIV/ AIDS in the state between 1988 and 2002, according to a new report by the Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity law.

At least 593 individuals were arrested between 1990 and 2019 as the result of the state’s severe restrictions on individuals living with HIV/ AIDS, and 318 of those people have been convicted of those crimes, according to the report. Sentences have ranged from 2.9 years to 10 years, depending on the crime and the time when a person was first arrested since sentences have increased as the laws became more punitive.

Those most impacted by the laws have been individuals accused of exposing state employees to their bodily fluids. HIV-positive sex workers, Black men, and those living in the St. Louis metropolitan area have been among those most likely to face punishment under the laws. Moreover, the laws have affected a significant portion of the people living with HIV in the state: One in 60 Missourians living with HIV have at least been arrested due to the laws.

The timeline of HIV criminalization measures in Missouri provides important background information behind the large number of people who have been negatively impacted. A law that passed in 1988, 191.677, banned people living with HIV from even attempting to be a blood, organ, sperm, or tissue donor (except when declared necessary for medical reasons). It also banned people from deliberately infecting another person. An infraction under this law amounted to a Class D felony punishable by a sentence of seven years behind bars.

However, the law was strengthened even further in 1997 when it was amended to ban people living with HIV from “exposing” another person to HIV — though not necessarily “infecting” them — and it established that condom use was not an acceptable defense. The penalties, previously capped at seven years, were also boosted to up to a decade behind bars if the person charged with the crime was over 21 and their partner was under 17.

Finally, the law was updated yet again in 2002 — and remains in that form today. The 2002 update added “biting” or other actions under the law banning the HIV-positive individual from allowing their semen, vaginal secretions, or blood to contact the mucous membranes of another person. The penalty classification was also increased from a Class D felony to a Class B felony — even when the person living with HIV did not transmit the virus — and called for sentences to range from five to 15 years. Those who did transmit the virus faced sentences ranging from 10 to 30 years.

Individuals living with HIV in Missouri get criminalized in other ways, as well. The state enacted laws in 2005 and 2010, respectively, criminalizing exposure of Department of Corrections officials and Department of Mental Health officials to blood, seminal fluid, urine, feces, or saliva. Those penalties were even more severe if the alleged perpetrator knew they were living with HIV/ AIDS, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C. Of the 598 total people arrested for HIV crimes, 398 were busted at least once for exposing HIV to state employees. All but two of those cases pertained to exposing employees connected to the Department of Corrections.

There are clear patterns when examining the effects of the law by race. Considering that Black men, for example, represent 5.5 percent of the state’s population but make up 35 percent of those living with HIV, that demographic was already very vulnerable to be impacted by the law. But while Black individuals make up 11.8 percent of the state’s population, they represent 56.5 percent of those who are at least arrested for HIV-related crimes and 60 percent of those convicted under those laws.

“Violations of these laws are all felonies,” the report’s lead author, Brad Sears, said in a written statement. “They do not require that the defendant actually infect anyone — or intend to infect anyone — and they include behaviors that pose no or little risk of transmission. These laws are disproportionately enforced against already vulnerable communities and aren’t preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis.”

Several legal challenges to the laws have been unsuccessful, but state lawmakers introduced a bill this year to revise the laws and a hearing is slated to take place in March. If passed, the new law would require an individual to have shown “specific intent” to transmit the virus and would allow the use of condoms as a defense. It also would specifically only criminalize exposure to blood and bodily fluid “that has been scientifically shown to be a known means of transmission of a serious infectious or communicable disease.”