Guilty of Having Sex While HIV-Positive, This Man May Be Labeled a Sex Offender for Life

No one contracted the illness, but Iowa's law punishes the risky behavior.

(Photo: David Madison/Getty Images)

Matt Krupnick is a freelance contributor to TakePart.

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 Iowa’s law “is based on outdated ways of thinking.”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. 

The facts of the case are uncontested: Rhoades, who knew he had HIV, met a man online and used a condom when the two had sex. The partner, who did not contract the virus, later found out from someone else that Rhoades was HIV-positive.

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. 

According to the Quad-City Times, a state prosecutor argued Monday that Rhoades should be held accountable because HIV transmission was a risk even with condom use, albeit a minuscule risk.

Other states also have used transmission laws to come down hard on HIV-positive people.

A homeless Texas man was sentenced in 2008 to 35 years in prison for spitting at a police officer, and a Mississippi man was arrested for the same offense last month.

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.

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