The chairperson and a member of the Maryland General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus testified last week in favor of a bill to make it a felony offense to “knowingly” transfer or attempt to transfer HIV to another person.
In a break from two organizations that often are on the same side, an official with the ACLU of Maryland testified against House Bill 622, saying it is “wildly out of proportion” to current public health trends for addressing HIV transmission and could violate the rights of people with HIV.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles County), a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, and State Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore City), chair of the caucus, were the only two witnesses to testify in favor of the bill at a hearing last week before the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee.
Melissa Goemann, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, was the only witness to testify against the legislation. A separate hearing on the bill was scheduled for next week before the Senate Judiciary Proceedings committee.
In his testimony before the House Judiciary panel, Wilson said blacks in Maryland and across the country have a far higher HIV infection rate than whites and other population groups.
Wilson said the state’s current HIV criminalization law, which treats knowing transmission of the virus as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of three years in jail, provides an insufficient deterrent for the “reckless” act of engaging in sexual relations with someone without disclosing they are infected with HIV.
HR 622 calls for making knowingly transferring or attempting to transfer HIV to another person a felony with a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison.
“The current law truly minimizes the devastation and recklessness of this crime,” Wilson said.
Goemann told the committee the proposed bill would harm efforts to curtail HIV transmission by discouraging people at risk for HIV, including African-American men and gay men, from getting tested to determine their HIV status. She pointed to studies showing that in most cases where HIV is transmitted through sexual contact, the infected person doesn’t know he or she is infected.
“Ignorance of HIV status is the best defense for ‘knowingly’ transferring HIV,” she said, adding that passage of the proposed bill would create “a powerful disincentive to testing.”
Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), one of the House of Delegates seven openly gay members and an attorney and prosecutor, said he is aware of the ACLU’s concerns and seeking out more information on the bill’s potential impact before deciding how he would vote on the measure. He’s a member of the Judiciary Committee.
“I’m a prosecutor, but I have real concerns about the bill having a chilling effect on people getting tested,” he said.