A Utah legislative proposal criminalizing failure to disclose HIV before sex hit a snag Wednesday at the Capitol.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 11-1 to hold the bill for revision and further discussion amid concerns from lawmakers, advocates and prosecutors that the proposed penalty was too high and could further alienate HIV-positive Utahns.
Under the bill, foregoing the disclaimer falls into the category of sex without consent, which can result in first-degree felony charges of rape and forcible sodomy, punishable by five years to life in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” bill sponsor Justin Fawson, R-Ogden, told the panel, adding the infection is deadly despite advances in medicine.
But advocates and prosecutors urged lawmakers not to advance the measure.
“My commission's concern is that a first-degree felony is too high for this crime,” said Ron Gordon, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
Will Carlson of the Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office agreed.
“It suddenly makes it rape when somebody HIV-positive does not disclose that status,” Carlson said.
In Utah, HIV rates have been rising over the long term, says Stan Penfold, executive director of the Utah Aids Foundation, but began to dip over the last year or two for a number of reasons, including the availability of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a once-daily medication that greatly reduces risk of transmitting the virus.
“We have concerns about this bill,” Penfold says. Consent to sex, he adds, should “remain the principal concern” in Utah criminal code on sexual offenses.
Some believe the measure would amplify stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS and disproportionately penalize low-income people and minorities, who might not have money or access to proper health care.
Instead of making people feel safer, Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says the bill “could have the opposite effect.” Williams says other states that previously moved to pass similar laws are now backtracking for that reason.
Others suggested on Wednesday the law may not be necessary. Prosecutors already can charge suspects with homicide and attempted murder for withholding the diagnosis from sexual partners, said Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan.
Rep. Brian Greene, R- Pleasant Grove, said he agreed Utah should make a law to discourage people from keeping the diagnosis from their sexual partners, “but should it be rape?”
Fawson said he would take more time to work on another draft that would pertain to consensual sex and also to instances of rape and sexual assault.
“I think there need to be criminal enhancements in both cases,” Fawson said.