HIV And Missouri Criminal Law

Late last year a man in St. Charles County, Missouri was arrested and charged with recklessly and knowingly exposing someone to HIV. The act of exposure was not unprotected sex; instead, it happened when the man, Willie Bishop, bit an officer attempting to take him into custody on outstanding warrants. For reasons passing understanding, Missouri’s outdated law on HIV-exposure makes biting a felony, this despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control says there is almost no risk of HIV transmission via biting.

The state’s law HIV exposure laws have come under fire by advocates who say they represent an unscientific and fear-based attack on those living with the virus. Last year at least five criminal cases were brought against people in Missouri for HIV exposure. These cases, including the one brought against Bishop, demonstrate how ignorance with regard to actual risks of HIV transmission is hard to fight, especially when it is codified into law. In Missouri, the punishment can be so severe that it’s possible to be sentenced to life in prison if you infect others without their knowledge.

Missouri passed the first version of its HIV criminal law in 1988. But unlike other states with similar laws, which criminalize only sexual behavior without disclosure of an HIV-positive status, Missouri’s law outlines a series of behaviors which the state identifies as reckless exposure. These include:

  1. Through contact with blood, semen or vaginal secretions in the course of oral, anal or vaginal sexual intercourse; or
  2. By the sharing of needles; or
  3. By biting another person or purposely acting in any other manner which causes the HIV-infected person’s semen, vaginal secretions, or blood to come into contact with the mucous membranes or non-intact skin of another person.

Missouri law says it is a Class B felony to expose a person to HIV if the defendant knowingly acted in a reckless manner without knowledge and consent through oral, anal or vaginal sex. If the victim becomes infected, the charge is increased to a Class A felony and the use of a condom is not a defense.

Lawmakers felt the urge to go further and, in 1997, amended the law to make it easier to prosecute HIV-positive individuals. The amendment allowed evidence of other sexually transmitted infections to be used as proof of reckless exposure. The law specifies primary or secondary syphilis infections, gonorrhea or chlamydia as evidence that an HIV-positive person has broken the law.

Such discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS is fueled by policies like the one in Missouri that are not based on scientific evidence but instead on old fears. For instance, the Missouri law specifically identifies biting as reckless exposure, though there are questions as to whether this is true. The CDC has documented one and only one case where HIV was supposedly transmitted by biting. That is one case out of one million identified HIV infections. Even this one case is viewed with suspicion given that experts say the case involved a sex worker who bit her client and the man claims that is how be became infected with HIV. The sex worker says that the two had engaged in sexual activity and that’s where the infection came from.

Beyond the law criminalizing HIV exposure, those people in Missouri who are HIV-positive people are asked to sign a document in which they acknowledge their HIV-positive status and specifically admit to understanding the state’s law with regard to HIV exposure. Signing the document is required for patients to be granted access to medical case management and the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Experts say that prior to signing such a document, a person with HIV should first consult with an attorney. Too many people sign such important legal documents while in a state of shock and may not fully realize what they have agreed to.

If you’ve had a run in with the law and find yourself in need of a St. Louis criminal defense lawyer capable of fighting for your freedom, don’t hesitate to contact our St. Louis criminal law firm today at (314) 863-0500.

Source: “Advocates alarmed by spike in Missouri prosecutions of HIV-positive persons,” by Todd Heywood, published at