Sanjay Johnson, who was charged with nondisclosure of his HIV status to a former sexual partner, was given a surprise sentence of five years probation and a $750 fine finalized in Little Rock, Arkansas on Feb. 19. Johnson was initially facing a felony conviction with the possibility of 10 to 12 years in prison and a requirement that he register as a sex offender upon his release. We last reported on Johnson's story in September 2018.
"Honestly, I'm grateful, but I still have a burden with probation and its restrictions and financial obligations," said Johnson about the sentence.
Johnson's defense lawyer, Cheryl K. Maples, said that the case largely rested on the fact that Johnson was documented as having an undetectable viral load and could not have transmitted the virus to the accuser. The prosecutor finally was convinced in the second hearing.
"He finally heard me," Maples said, speaking about Grayson Hinojosa, deputy prosecutor with Pulaski County, Arkansas. "He finally got that Sanjay could not have exposed this young man to HIV because he was undetectable."
The statute that was employed in Johnson's earlier no-contest plea is rarely used, according to Maples. It allows for people without any other criminal records to settle their case with a guilty or no-contest plea, accept at least one year's probation and no more than a $3,500 fine. They will continue to have no further criminal record.
Interestingly, the law carves out a provision that bans defendants who have been charged with "exposing another person to the human immunodeficiency virus." But with Johnson being virally suppressed, the exposure clause was moot.
Maples sees an opportunity to help others like Johnson. She is preparing a case for the United States District Court in Western Arkansas to challenge the HIV criminalization law that initially ensnared him. "I believe the law [that criminalizes people with HIV] is unconstitutional," she said.
Change is spreading nationally, slowly but surely, due to heavy advocacy work by community advocates, state groups, and national organizations including the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Lambda Legal, Prevention Access Campaign, and SERO Project. While Arkansas still has specific laws criminalizing people living with HIV for nondisclosure, there are several states that have reformed their laws in the past few years, most recently California, Colorado, and North Carolina.
As for Johnson, he says that although he is happy about the final ruling, the case has taken a toll.
"I'm still looking for a better stable job," he said. "I was terminated from my job at the hospital [where I was employed] for over three years. My work performance went down since I've been going through this ordeal, and it affected me mentally and led to my dismissal. I didn't work for three months, but was applying and having interviews, and started working on Jan. 7."
As for the future, Johnson said that despite the hardships, this experience has encouraged him to want to help others in similar scenarios.
"I would like be in a position where I could work while getting paid advocating and educating on HIV and criminalization, and maybe write a book about my experiences," he said. "I still will continue to advance in my woodcarving and photography and other creative passions. I just want to be a genuine example to those who are like me that you can overcome adversity."