Victory! Iowa Supreme Court Reverses Conviction in Lambda Legal HIV Criminalization Case

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June 13, 2014
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Today the Iowa Supreme Court set aside the conviction of Nick Rhoades, an HIV-positive Iowan who was initially sentenced to 25 years in prison, with required registration as a sex offender, after having a one-time sexual encounter with another man during which they used a condom.

In reversing the conviction, the Court recognized that HIV-positive individuals who have a reduced viral load as a result of effective treatment pose little risk of transmitting HIV.

Christopher Clark, Counsel for Lambda Legal, said:

We applaud the Court for applying the law in light of current medical understanding of how HIV is and is not transmitted. An individual who takes precautions to prevent transmission should not be considered a criminal for choosing to be sexually active, and we are very pleased that the Court agrees.

Justice Wiggins wrote for the majority opinion:

Based on the state of medicine both now and at the time of the plea in 2009, we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV, regardless of an infected individual’s viral load, when that individual engages in protected anal or unprotected oral sex with an uninfected person.

Read the Fact Sheet: 15 Ways HIV Criminalization Laws Harm Us All

In June 2008, Rhoades had a one-time sexual encounter with Adam Plendl during which they used a condom. Several days later, Plendl was told by a friend that Rhoades might be HIV-positive. The police were contacted and Mr. Plendl cooperated fully in the effort to prosecute Mr. Rhoades. The police arrested Rhoades in September 2008, and on the advice of his counsel, he pled guilty.

Despite the fact that a condom was used and Mr. Plendl did not contract HIV, Rhoades was convicted under Iowa’s HIV criminalization law. He received the maximum sentence: 25 years in prison and classification as the most serious type of sex offender. Subsequently, the court suspended his prison sentence, and he was placed on supervised probation for five years.

On March 15, 2010, Rhoades filed an Application for Post-Conviction Relief, arguing that the attorney who advised him to plead guilty had failed to inform him of the specifics of the statute, resulting in his conviction for a crime he did not in fact commit. In December 2011, the district court denied the application. Lambda Legal represented Mr. Rhoades in his appeal, and argued the matter on his behalf in the Iowa Supreme Court in March 2014.

Scott Schoettes, HIV Project Director for Lambda Legal, said:

In light of today’s decision, we believe that additional modifications to the state’s infectious disease law should be considered. Great strides were made through the law’s recent amendment, and we are hopeful that today’s decision—acknowledging the effectiveness of various HIV prevention measures—will fuel the Iowa Legislature’s clear desire to bring the state’s law fully up to date.

Thirty-nine states have HIV-specific criminal statutes or have brought HIV-related criminal charges resulting in more than 160 prosecutions in the United States in the past four years. Among other things, HIV criminalization perpetuates the many myths and misconceptions that fuel other types of discrimination against people living with HIV. It sends an inaccurate message regarding prevention responsibility, creates a disincentive to getting tested, and may actually discourage disclosure of HIV status.

Clark added:

The importance of the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision cannot be overstated. We look forward to making these arguments again and to taking this Court’s clear guidance on the interpretation and application of these types of laws to the many jurisdictions in which HIV criminalization remains a pressing issue.

Learn more about the case.

Read the press release.

Criminal Justice, HIV, Iowa