A well-meaning law that created stricter penalties for people who knowingly spread HIV to others should be revised to destigmatize those with the illness, says state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.
Moeller has introduced a bill to remove references to HIV in the state’s criminal assault laws while also preserving the tough penalties for criminals who intentionally infect another person with a serious disease.
Moeller said he introduced House Bill 1262 because the human immunodeficiency virus shouldn’t be singled out in state law from any other deadly, infectious disease.
“Time really has passed for those with HIV to be stigmatized for their disease and we want to reflect that in our (laws),” Moeller said during a public hearing last month on the bill. “Under the law, the HIV virus should and will be treated as any other highly contagious disease when it comes to protecting sexual partners.”
The HIV reference was added to state law in 1997, in response to a high-profile case involving a Clark County man.
Camas native Randall Louis Ferguson was convicted in 1996 of second-degree assault and sentenced to 10 years in prison for exposing a woman to HIV. The term was deemed excessive by the Washington Supreme Court and shortened to 5 years, 10 months.
Ferguson said he contracted HIV, which leads to AIDS, in 1988 and knowingly exposed people for at least three years.
Definition of assault
Because of Ferguson’s case, the state’s definition of a first-degree assault perpetrator now includes someone who “administers, exposes, or transmits … the human immunodeficiency virus or any other destructive or noxious substance.”
Supporters of Moeller’s bill hope to strike the HIV reference and expand the definition of destructive or noxious substances to include “fluid infected with a disease the normal course of which, if untreated, is death or serious bodily injury or harm.”
Many lawmakers agreed with Moeller, but they struggled to find a way to perfect the bill’s language. They worried that removing the reference to HIV would inadvertently harm prosecutors’ ability to charge criminals with assault.
“I wish this language had never been put in this statute,” Tom McBride, of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said last month during a public hearing before the House Public Safety Committee. “(HIV) should be treated just like any other disease under the statute.”
He said he would like to see HIV replaced with “deadly disease.”
Since its passage in 1997, the law has led to first-degree assault convictions for three criminals who knowingly spread HIV to others, McBride said. Despite the law’s problematic wording, it is important and necessary, he said.
HIV is also named specifically in the state’s second-degree assault statute, as well as in the statute imposing a gross misdemeanor for people who knowingly keep any sexually transmitted disease other than HIV a secret from their partners. Moeller’s bill would change the language in those laws, too.
The public safety committee’s chairman, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said he agreed with the intent of Moeller’s bill and hopes lawmakers can work out a solution about the bill’s language.
“We’re going to have to try to figure this one out,” Goodman said.
The bill received a hearing Jan. 31 and has yet to be voted out of committee. Friday is the deadline for bills to pass out of committee in their house of origin.
Moeller said Tuesday that he’ll likely put the bill on hold, work to perfect it in the interim, and reintroduce it next session.
Authorities claimed in 1995 that Ferguson spread HIV to dozens of people through six years of needle-sharing and unprotected sex between 1989 and 1995.
Two of Ferguson’s former wives, a girlfriend, a male acquaintance and another woman died of AIDS. Prosecutors could convict him in 1996 of only a single count of second-degree assault.
In 2004, Ferguson died in Spokane at age 45.