Minnesota Supreme Court Rejects Misuse of Criminal Law to Prosecute HIV-Positive Man

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August 21, 2013

Today, the Supreme Court of Minnesota upheld the decision of an intermediate appellate court overturning the conviction of Daniel James Rick, who is HIV positive, for the alleged criminal transmission of a communicable disease. The court’s decision affirms that the government must respect the personal and private decisions of consenting adults regarding sexual intimacy and procreation.

“We’re relieved that the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled in favor of liberty and justice, rejecting the government’s misapplication of its communicable disease law to the facts of this case,” said Christopher Clark, Senior Staff Attorney for Lambda Legal. “The State should not dictate with whom and how people choose to engage in intimate sexual relations.”

In May 2009, Daniel James Rick had a sexual relationship with another man of unknown HIV status, D.B., in which they mutually agreed to not use condoms. In October 2009, D.B. learned that he too was HIV positive, and the two men had their final sexual encounter in November 2009.  After the relationship ended, D.B. sought prosecution of Mr. Rick under Minnesota’s “knowing transfer of a communicable disease” statute.

Despite Rick’s contention that he had disclosed his HIV status to D.B. prior to their first encounter, the State charged Rick with attempted first-degree assault with great bodily harm—punishable by up to 20 years in prison—under the “knowing transfer” statute.  In addition to charging Rick under the subdivision of the statute governing sexual penetration, which contains an exception if there has been verbal disclosure, the State also chose to pursue a conviction under the subdivision governing the medical transfer of blood, sperm, organs, or tissue, which does not contain the verbal disclosure exception.

The jury found Rick not guilty under the subdivision for sexual penetration, specifically rejecting the State’s evidence that Rick did not disclose his HIV status to D.B. However, the jury found him guilty under the subdivision designed to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in the context of medical donations. In September of 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. In December of 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for review of this decision and heard oral arguments on May 7, 2013.

“It is disappointing and disturbing that prosecutors argued in favor of applying this subdivision of the communicable disease law under these circumstances in the first place,” said Scott Schoettes, HIV Project Director. “The rabid prosecution of Mr. Rick—regardless of the facts presented at trial—shows that people living with HIV are vulnerable and will continue to be unfairly targeted until laws like this are reformed to reflect the shared responsibility for the prevention of disease transmission.”

Lambda Legal and the ACLU authored a friend-of-the-court brief—submitted on behalf of the two author organizations, along with the ACLU of Minnesota, the Center of HIV Law and Policy and Outfront Minnesota--outlining how the lower court’s interpretation of the law would infringe upon the constitutionally protected right of consenting adults to make personal decisions regarding sexual intimacy and procreation. Additionally, the brief argues that the specific subdivision under which Rick was convicted is unconstitutionally vague as applied to sexual conduct and that applying it in such circumstances raises equal protection problems, because it  would result in criminal liability for an HIV-positive man, but not an HIV-positive woman.

Read the press release.

Read the brief.

Read the opinion.