JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Due to Missouri law, Robert Richardson has served nine years in prison for not disclosing his HIV-positive status to a sexual partner.
It was a “he said, she said” situation. He said he disclosed his status, she said he did not.
Richardson’s partner did not become infected with HIV, he was on (and is) on medication and he took the recommended steps to avoid transferring the disease.
Still, Richardson was sentenced to 12 years in prison, of which he served nine years.
His experience and his situation have been replicated all across Missouri because of 30-year-old laws, according to Richardson, and that is why some lawmakers believe Missouri laws need be updated to reflect science and data.
“I was literally sitting there with 30 years of research backing the same claim…and they wouldn’t even look at it because they assumed they already knew the facts based on a law written 30-years-ago,” Richardson recounted his experience at a parole hearing.
He was just one of nearly a dozen witnesses that descended on the Capitol to testify in favor of two bills that would update Missouri’s HIV statutes.
On Monday, the House Committee on Health and Mental Health Policy held a public hearing for HB 166 and HB 167, introduced by Reps. Tracy McCreery and Holly Rehder, respectively.
Both bills make sweeping changes to the laws regarding unlawful actions by folks with HIV.
The laws currently on the books were referred to throughout the hearing as “antiquated,” “outdated,” and based on information science has proven inaccurate. The laws also only single out those infected with HIV.
Particularly, both bills would expand the laws to cover those infected with a serious communicable disease.
A “serious infectious or communicable disease” is defined as being a non-airborne disease spread from person to person that causes long-term consequences on physical health or life activities. The definition is worded differently in each bill.
Under Rehder’s proposal, a person can be charged if they knowingly expose another person to a communicable disease and do not take risk-reducing measures. McCreery’s proposal allows a person to be charged if they purposefully try to infect someone with a communicable disease.
Both bills also allow for practical means used to prevent transmission as a defense in court. Devices, behaviors, and methods scientifically demonstrated to limit or reduce transmission — such as, condoms and medication used to reduce viral loads — fall under possible defenses.
When it comes to scope and punishment, the two bills differ.
Currently, if a person is aware they are HIV positive it is a Class A felony to recklessly infect a sexual partner and a Class B felony to recklessly expose a partner.
Rehder’s bill reduces transmission to a Class B felony and exposure to a Class C felony. McCreery’s bill reduces transmission to a Class A misdemeanor and exposure to a Class B misdemeanor.
“…a lot of the laws that were put on the books were not based on science or sound information,” said McCreery. “We think the time is now to rewrite the laws make sure they are medically and factually accurate.”
“We don’t have all the answers. We know it lies somewhere in between our bills. So, we would like to be able to come out of committee with a committee product that everyone can endorse and get behind on the floor,” said Rehder.
The one point of concern that was raised for both bills is the fiscal note. Rehder’s carries a $220,412 potential cost increase once fully implemented and McCreery’s carries a $190,947 projected cost increase once fully implemented.
The added cost comes from a projected increase in inquirers.
“If we are truly half a billion dollars short on our general revenue this year, they are going to be cutting bills that have a high fiscal note,” said Committee Chair Rep. Mike Stephens.
Both of the bill sponsors said they “definitely want to work” on the fiscal notes. McCreery specifically noted she thought the fiscal note was “too aggressive.”
Richardson pointed out that they should also take into account the cost to the state of having him imprisoned for nine years including his medication and medical bills.
Alisha Shurr was a reporter for The Missouri Times and The Missouri Times Magazine. She joined The Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University.