The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that an HIV-positive gay man didn’t violate a state law prohibiting the transfer of communicable diseases by engaging in consensual unprotected sex with his partner.
In a 16-page decision, the court determined in the case of State of Minnesota v. Rick that Daniel James Rick didn’t commit a felony under Minnesota’s “knowing transfer of a communicable disease” statute by having unprotected sex with a partner after declaring his HIV status.
The court affirmed that the law applies to donation or exchange for value of blood, sperm, organs or tissue, but given Rick’s conduct, there is “insufficient evidence to support respondent’s conviction.”
Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, commended the Minnesota high court for reaching the decision. His organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief along with the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU Minnesota on behalf of Rick.
“We’re relieved that the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled in favor of liberty and justice, rejecting the government’s misapplication of its communicable disease law to the facts of this case,” Clark said. “The State should not dictate with whom and how people choose to engage in intimate sexual relations.”
In May 2009, Rick had a sexual relationship with another man of unknown HIV status, identified as D.B. in the court decision, after meeting through a “social website.” They mutually agreed to not use condoms while having sex, although Rick said he disclosed that he was HIV-positive. According to the court decision, Rick either ejaculated inside D.B.’s rectum or outside of and onto D.B.’s body. In October 2009, D.B. tested positive for HIV. The next month, D.B. and Rick had their final sexual encounter in which they engaged in consensual anal intercourse and ejaculated inside each other.
But after the relationship ended, D.B. sought prosecution of Rick under Minnesota’s “knowing transfer of a communicable disease” statute. The state of Minnesota charged Rick with attempted first-degree assault with great bodily harm, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. In addition to charging Rick under the provison of that law governing sexual penetration, Minnesota also pursued a conviction under the subdivision governing the medical transfer of blood, sperm, organs, or tissue, which does not contain the verbal disclosure exception.
A jury found Rick not guilty with regard to for sexual penetration, rejecting evidence that Rick didn’t disclose his HIV status. Still, the jury found him guilty under the law designed in the context of medical donations. The jury imposed upon him a sentence of 49 months in prison, but stayed execution of the sentence for five years.
In September, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. And after the granting review of the case in December, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed that ruling in a decision it made public on Wednesday.
The Supreme Court reached this decision first by examining whether the notion of “transfer” under the communicable-disease statute with regard to medical donations includes the transfer of semen during unprotected sex. The justices determined that the way the law is worded is ambiguous. Then, looking toward the legislative history leading to passage of the bill, the court determined that lawmakers didn’t intend to mean consensual sex when referring to the transfer of semen.
“We acknowledge that the communicable-disease statute presents difficult interpretation issues and that the Legislature may have, in fact, intended something different,” the decision states. “If that is the case, however, it is the Legislature’s prerogative to reexamine the communicable-disease statute and amend it accordingly.”
Gay rights and HIV/AIDS advocates praised the decision as a just way to end the state’s prosecution of an individual for engaging in consensual sex.
Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project, said it’s “deeply concerning” that a state would persecutive an HIV-positive person for engaging in consensual sex where parties disclosed their HIV status.
“Today’s decision marks an important step in protecting HIV-positive Minnesotans from misapplication of the criminal law,” Strangio said.
Sean Strub, a longtime AIDS activist and founder of POZ Magazine, said the court decision is positive, but he still has concerns.
“The ruling in Minnesota is a good step, but there’s still something creepy about having to celebrate, in 2013, a court ruling that says two consenting adults have the right to have sex with each other,” Strub said.
Strub noted public health statutes have been used in history to discriminate against immigrants, Jews, Chinese, African Americans and migrants in addition to LGBT people. He called on Minnesota to change its law to enable greater clarity.
“People with HIV today seem to be an acceptable focus for fears and biases that only barely mask the racism and homophobia that drive them,” Strub said. “I hope this court decision will inspire the Minnesota legislature to modernize their statute to reflect contemporary science and a respect for the rights of all people, including people with HIV.”