One sexual encounter in 2008 turned into a legal nightmare for an HIV-positive Iowa man, leading to a felony conviction, a 25-year prison sentence, and registration as a sex offender.
Now, Nick Rhoades’ attorneys are trying to put his life back together.
The Iowa Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in Rhoades’ case as he tries to get his conviction on charges of HIV transmission overturned.
Among his chief arguments: He did not actually transmit HIV to anyone.
“This is a case in which someone was prosecuted for something with virtually no risk of HIV transmission,” said Christopher Clark, an attorney with Lambda Legal who is representing Rhoades. Iowa’s law “is based on outdated ways of thinking.”
Rhoades served time behind bars but was later resentenced to time served, five years probation, and released. Still, the matters of his record and his sex offender status remain.
Iowa’s law—variations of which can be found in at least 33 states—prohibits “intimate contact” between an HIV-positive person and an unknowing partner. The law defines intimate contact as “intentional exposure of the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in a manner that could result in the transmission” of HIV.
His lawyers argue the virus was virtually undetectable in Rhoades’ body because of treatment he had been receiving, making it nearly impossible to transmit the disease—even without a condom.
The Black Hawk County prosecutor who handled Rhoades’ case, Linda Fangman, did not respond to an interview request. The Iowa County Attorneys Association, which represents county prosecutors, declined to comment.
Other states also have used transmission laws to come down hard on HIV-positive people.
States should eliminate laws that target HIV-positive people in instances where transmission is not a risk, said Carolyn McAllaster, director of Duke University’s AIDS Legal Project. Assault laws and civil courts are sufficient to handle cases in which a person intended to transmit the virus, she said.
With medical advances in recent years, casual, safe sex is far less risky than it was 20 years ago, McAllaster said.
The laws “come from a time when some of the behaviors did have some risk but never the risk that would justify being charged with a felony,” she said.