Missouri has an HIV criminalization problem. Under current Missouri law, if someone knows they are living with HIV but does not disclose their status before engaging in certain activities considered to be “exposure”— some of which don’t carry any risk of transmission — they can be charged with a class B felony, punishable by five to fifteen years in prison, despite no HIV transmission actually occurring. And several Missouri laws punish people living with HIV at a higher level simply because of their HIV status. As discussed in a previous blog post, these laws are incredibly harmful because they perpetuate stigma and disinformation, and they create bad incentives that stand in the way of public health policy.
Two nearly identical bills were introduced this session that would address some of the most problematic aspects of Missouri’s HIV-specific criminal laws, Sen. Holly Rehder’s SB 65 and Rep. Phil Christofanelli’s HB 755. These bills would lower the penalties under the HIV exposure statute and raise the level of intent a prosecutor would need to prove in order to convict someone of a felony. The bills would also update the law to be consistent with medical science by limiting the law to only cover activities that have been scientifically shown to create a substantial risk of transmission. Further, the bills would end the singling out of HIV by making the law apply to “serious infectious or communicable diseases,” and they would add privacy protections for accusers and the accused. However, these bills do not address all of the HIV Justice Coalition’s concerns — most notably, they do not address the fact that sex workers charged with prostitution can receive a penalty thirty times higher simply because they are living with HIV — meaning additional reform would still be necessary. But either of these bills would be a significant step towards modernizing Missouri’s HIV laws.
Both SB 65 and HB 755 received committee hearings this session and were voted out with unanimous support back in February and March. Despite the strong support in the committees, neither bill has reached the floor in either the House or the Senate. As the end of the legislative session gets closer, the window of opportunity for either of these bills to pass both chambers is shrinking. However, a recent legislative maneuver may have created a more viable path towards enacting these reforms by bypassing many of the procedural hurdles standing in the way.
HB 530 is a bill that would clarify when certain jury instructions should be given. It passed the House in late March and was then sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee to begin the process in the Senate. While the bill was in committee, it was amended to include all of the HIV criminalization reforms of SB 65 and HB 755. With these amendments attached, HB 530 was voted out of the Judiciary Committee and passed through the Fiscal Oversight Committee. The next step for the bill is to be voted on by the entire Senate.
Now, if HB 530 receives a majority support of the Senate, a majority of the House, and the Governor’s signature, Missouri will finally improve its outdated and medically inaccurate HIV laws for the first time. Today would be a great day to call or email your senator and representative to tell them to support HB 530 and begin to address Missouri’s HIV criminalization problem.