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Missouri updates laws from 1980s that criminalized HIV transmission

Missouri has updated laws that make it a crime to transmit the HIV virus for the first time in more than three decades. Gov. Mike Parson this week signed a bill that reduces the charges a person faces for transmitting the virus, radio station KWMU in St. Louis reported.

Missouri joins a number of states that have passed such legislation this year. Legislatures around the country are moving to correct HIV laws based on false assumptions about how the virus is transmitted.

The Missouri criminalization law was passed in the 1980s when Democrats held supermajorities in the Missouri Senate and House.

missouri hiv

Gov. Parson signs the law with the bill’s sponsors. Photo: Gov. press office.

Advocacy groups and politicians in Missouri successfully lobbied for SB 53, a sweeping police reform bill, to include changes to the state’s HIV laws after years of attempts to pass similar legislation. Public health professionals say laws criminalizing HIV have not reduced transmission of the virus.

Under the new law, prosecutors must prove someone “knowingly” exposed a person to the virus to obtain a felony conviction and reduced the minimum sentence from 10 years to three years, if the person contracts HIV. A previous law made it a felony crime in Missouri to “recklessly” expose another person to HIV, which is harder to defend in court. Missouri’s updated law goes into effect on August 28.

While the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition wants state lawmakers to eliminate laws against transmitting the virus, some advocates say the law lessening penalties is still a win for the more than 13,000 people in Missouri who live with HIV.

“We still feel like it’s a really strong step in the right direction, to make sure that the laws are medically accurate and are charging people at an appropriate level,” said Mallory Rusch, executive director for Empower Missouri, an advocacy group within the HIV Justice Coalition that lobbied for the bill’s passage.

“[The old laws] were based on faulty assumptions about science, and it’s no fault of the legislature at the time; it’s just all they knew,” said Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, who filed the bill in the House. “Back in the 70s and 80s, when HIV entered the public consciousness, the legislators at the time first thought it was a death sentence.”

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice