Legislation targets state’s decades-old laws criminalizing HIV

By: - April 16, 2021 6:04 am

“These laws were not rooted in science but in fear, and have had significant negative public health consequences for Nevada for decades,” said state Sen. Dallas Harris. (Photo: David Calvert/The Nevada Independent/pool photographer)

Even as the science around HIV, as well as the medications to treat and suppress the virus, have advanced in nearly 30 years, the laws in Nevada criminalizing HIV have remained the same. 

Nathan Cisneros, the HIV criminalization analyst at UCLA LAW School’s Williams Institute, told lawmakers at the beginning of April that 37 people, overwhelmingly people of color, have been arrested for HIV-related crimes in Nevada. 

“We count 76 individual HIV-related charges across 67 arrest cycles,” Cisneros said. “About two-thirds of the individual charges are for sex work-related charges for engaging in prostitution after a positive HIV test. The other third are for what’s labeled intentional transmission of HIV.” 

State Sen. Dallas Harris is wanting to change that in the 2021 session. 

Senate Bill 275 would repeal a provision in Nevada law that makes it a category B felony for a person who tested positive for HIV from “knowingly or willfully engaging in a manner intended to transmit the disease.” The bill makes it a misdemeanor instead, in line with other communicable diseases.

The legislation passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee April 8 and is headed to the Senate floor. 

In a statement following the bill’s first vote, Andre Wade, the Nevada director of the LGBTQ civil rights organization Silver State Equality, said he was “hopeful that Nevada law will soon treat HIV as the public health issue that it is, rather than as a crime. “

“Nevada is now one step closer to eroding the stigma attached to being HIV positive and lowering HIV transmission rates to ultimately end the HIV epidemic,” he said. 

Former state Sen. David Parks. (Facebook)

Former state Sen. David Parks, who presented alongside Harris during the bill’s first hearing April 1, said the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990 provided federally funding for states for HIV/AIDS treatment and care.

Just one catch. 

“It required every state receiving federal funds to certify that its criminal laws were adequate to prosecute any HIV infected individual who knowingly exposed another person to HIV,” he said. “In our legal system, criminalization of potential HIV exposure is a matter of state law and not federal legislation.”

By the early 90s, more than 67 laws were passed in 33 states that criminalized people living with HIV. 

“These laws were not rooted in science but in fear, and have had significant negative public health consequences for Nevada for decades,” Harris said. 

The laws, supporters of the bill noted, targeted the LGBTQ community. Prosecution and enforcement of these laws has been heavy handed toward people of color and women. 

“As we’ve seen in other states, HIV crimes disproportionately impact people of color and over half of those arrested for HIV crimes in Nevada are Black,” Cisneros said. 

Since those laws were enacted, health care and treatment has advanced with Antiretroviral Treatments. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Lancet medical journal are among the health organizations that have indicated people on medications who achieve an undetectable viral load — when the copies of HIV per milliliter of blood are so low, it can’t be detected on a test — are no risk of transmitting the virus.

Yet, Nevada HIV laws have remained the same. 

“As a person who helped develop Nevada’s HIV/AIDS statutes and regulations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this is an issue I’ve wrestled with the last four legislative sessions,” Parks said. 

In 2019, Parks sponsored legislation creating an Advisory Task Force on HIV Exposure Modernization to review the laws and punishments around HIV transmission. 

SB 275 was developed out of some of its findings and recommendations. 

There was no opposition to the bill during testimony.

Some health and emergency service providers testified in “neutral” and said they are working with Harris around some of the bill’s proposed language around communicable disease and testing requirements. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.