Lawmakers Aim to Take California's HIV-Specific Crimes Off the Books

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State Sen. Scott Wiener, along with other lawmakers and health advocates, announced the bill at Strut, a health center in the Castro. (Eli Wirtschafter/KQED)

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill Monday to repeal California laws he says unfairly target people with HIV.

Under current California law it is a crime for someone with HIV to donate blood or to have unprotected sex with intent to transmit the virus. Existing laws also add extra jail time to sentences for rape or prostitution if the accused knew they were HIV-positive.

Most of these laws were written before there were treatment options for AIDS. Now a person with HIV can live a long life and reduce the risk of transmission to almost zero.

San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu, who co-authored SB 239, says that he experienced firsthand as a prosecutor the negative consequences of current laws. He said they "criminalize and stigmatize people with HIV," and encourage them to avoid cooperating with the authorities. Wiener agreed with Chiu.

"Let's say you're in an abusive relationship. Your partner can use your HIV-positive status against you by threatening to report you to the police," Wiener said.

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Wiener said that existing laws also create "an incentive for people not to get tested, because they only apply if you know that you're positive."

The new bill treats HIV like other infectious diseases, making it a misdemeanor, not a felony, to transmit it deliberately.

The bill would keep some restrictions on donating blood, tissue or sperm, but it removes any criminal penalties.

Health advocates say that existing laws have had disproportionate consequences for women and people of color. The law most often enforced is the penalty for HIV-positive sex workers.

"Despite their claims to protect vulnerable communities, these laws actually cause further harm," said Naina Khanna, executive director of the Positive Women's Network-USA, in a press release.

When KQED contacted the offices of Republican representatives serving on health committees, they said they were not yet aware of the legislation.

Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), a co-author of the bill, plans to introduce it in the state Assembly.