OLYMPIA — State health officials want to change a rarely used law that makes it a felony to intentionally expose a sexual partner to HIV, saying the current penalties don’t have an impact on reducing transmissions or improving public health.
The state Department of Health has proposed legislation that would make such exposure a misdemeanor, asserting the state’s HIV laws aren’t reflective of current treatments and perpetuate a stigma against people living with the virus.
“When we allow stigma to permeate, when we have a statutory framework in which people are afraid to come forward about their HIV status, we put the public health at risk, and individuals at significant risk,” Democratic Rep. Nicole Macri, a lead proponent of the measure, told the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee during a hearing Friday on the measure.
A vote by the committee is expected Monday.
The proposal also calls for more intervention from local and state health officers, allowing them to recommend options ranging from testing to counseling, and even mandate treatment for an individual determined to be placing others at risk.
Republican Sen. Ann Rivers, a member of the committee, said she supports efforts to de-stigmatize HIV but said reducing the penalty for intentional transmission diminishes the significance of the impact on a person who is infected, even with the advancements in HIV treatment.
“The reality is, if I have to take medicine every day — and maybe my insurance will pay for it, maybe it won’t — I think we need to send the message that you can’t just willy-nilly go around spreading this disease,” Rivers said. “There has to be a consequence.”
The Department of Health says there are an estimated 14,744 people in the state living with HIV, with about 81 percent of them virally suppressed, meaning they are unable to transmit the virus.
Under current law, a person can be charged with a felony for exposing or transmitting HIV to another person and could face as much as life in prison and a $50,000 fine, depending on the circumstances.
Under the proposed bill, that crime would become a misdemeanor that could carry a penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. If someone lies about their HIV status, it becomes a gross misdemeanor if a person is infected, with penalties of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Between 1986 and 2019, there have been 33 criminal cases filed under the current HIV-related statutes, according to the Department of Health. Three of those cases resulted in a felony conviction.
The Democratic-controlled House passed the measure with a 57-40 vote last week but accepted an amendment on the floor that maintains the felony charge for someone who intentionally transmits HIV to a child or vulnerable adult, and requires them to register as a sex offender.
Republican Rep. Michelle Caldier argued that the measure “puts innocent people at risk and removes their ability for informed consent.”
The Center for HIV Law & Policy says Washington is among 29 states with HIV-specific laws. If the proposed measure becomes law, Washington would join seven other states that have reformed or repealed one or more parts of criminal laws specific to HIV.