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HIV Law in 30-Year Michael Johnson Conviction Is Unconstitutional and 'Grossly Disproportionate,' Advocacy Groups Tell Court

April 29, 2016

HIV Law in 30-Year Michael Johnson Conviction Is Unconstitutional and 'Grossly Disproportionate,' Advocacy Groups Tell Court

A coalition of leading LGBTQ, HIV and medical advocacy groups has filed a "friend of the court" legal brief arguing that Missouri's HIV-specific criminal law violates federal law and the U.S. Constitution. The amicus curie filing concerns an appeal to the 2015 conviction and 30-year sentence of former college wrestler Michael Johnson.

The Johnson prosecution was surrounded by media hype and tinged with racial implications, as Steven Thrasher at Buzzfeed reported. Johnson was convicted for "recklessly infecting" a male partner and putting four other men at risk by not disclosing his HIV-positive status to them. In July, he was sentenced to 30 years in the Missouri state prison system. He was 23 at the time of his conviction.

"What amici have in common, and what unites them in filing in this matter, is a belief that HIV-specific criminal laws are discriminatory and violate constitutional rights, protections against disability-based bias and human dignity, and that Michael Johnson has received a horribly unjust criminal sentence," the legal brief from 22 groups reads, in part. Organizations intervening in the case include the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Human Rights Campaign, National LGBTQ Task Force, Women With a Vision, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), and American Academy of HIV Medicine. A complete list of signatories is available at the end of this report.

"It is an honor to be part of this effort and to take a stand against a law that is at odds with everything we know about HIV today -- how to encourage people to get tested, how to treat it, how it is transmitted and how to prevent transmission from happening," said Terrance Moore of NASTAD in a press release announcing the court filing.


The 94-page brief argues that the Missouri law reflects "invidious discrimination against people living with HIV" and violates both the Equal Protection Clause and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In their Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection argument, the groups contend that the law fails to treat all people with infectious or communicable diseases the same. "This is because it imposes burdens on people living with HIV, singling them out among people living with other communicable diseases, without rational justification," they write. "Ultimately, the Act is discriminatory and motivated by an animus toward disfavored groups. For these reasons, the Act is unconstitutional and Mr. Johnson's conviction and sentence are void."

They argue the Missouri law fails any level of constitutional scrutiny when it comes to equal protection. "[T]he Act is an unreasonable and arbitrary means of preventing HIV transmission for at least three reasons: first, because legislation of this kind is empirically proven to have no effect on the rate of HIV infection in the population at large; second, because it is arbitrary, in the sense that it is both overinclusive, criminalizing behavior that carries no risk of infection, and underinclusive, singling out HIV among all other communicable diseases; and third, because it is counterproductive, in that it provides powerful reasons for people living with HIV not to get tested and not to disclose their status to prospective sexual partners," the groups write.

They also argue the law flies in the face of constitutional privacy rights by not only mandating that persons living with HIV disclose their status prior to sexual activity or needle sharing, but also mandating the release of their HIV-related testing and treatment information and the identities of known sexual partners to law enforcement.

Additionally, they argue, "As written and applied, the Act does not require that Missouri make any effort to limit the dissemination of the information at issue to the purposes of the Statute," the groups argue. "As a result, criminal defendants under the Act, like Mr. Johnson, are exposed to an incomprehensible and ultimately unconstitutional invasion of their privacy."

Noting that Missouri's law punishes HIV exposure and infection similarly to murder and other grievous bodily crimes although HIV is no longer a 'death sentence' due to treatment advances, the groups further argue that Johnson's 30-year sentence is "grossly disproportionate" to the harm done, violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Todd A. Heywood is a freelance writer based in Lansing, Michigan. He specializes in writing about HIV policy issues in the U.S. Find him on Facebook and @ToddHeywood on Twitter.

Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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This article was provided by TheBody.


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