The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled on August 21 that the state’s court of appeals correctly reversed the conviction of an HIV-positive gay man who had transmitted HIV to his partner, finding that neither part of the state’s law penalizing “attempted first-degree assault by communicable disease” applied to his case.
According to Chief Justice Lorie Gildea’s opinion, Daniel James Rick was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2006, and three years later he met D.B. through a “social website” and they began a relationship that included unprotected anal sex. Rick maintains he disclosed his HIV-status and that the sex was consensual. D.B. subsequently tested positive for HIV, and when the relationship ended some time later D.B. complained to law enforcement about Rick, who was charged with violating Minnesota law. Rick’s attorney argued that since his client disclosed his status before having sex, he could not be found guilty.
Rick was charged with violating two sections of the law, the first part making it a crime for somebody who “knowingly harbors an infectious agent to transfer” it through “sexual penetration with another person without first having informed the other person.” The second part makes it a crime for somebody who “knowingly harbors an infectious agent to transfer blood, sperm, organs, or tissue, except as deemed necessary for medical research or if disclosed on donor screening forms.
Minnesota Supreme Court approves appellate reversal for gay defendant”
The jury believed Rick’s testimony and acquitted him on the first charge. The state argued that regardless of whether he had disclosed his HIV-status, Rick had illegally transferred sperm to D.B. Rick argued that provision did not apply to sexual activity, only to medical transfers of blood, sperm, organs, or tissue through sale or donations. Accepting the state’s argument, the trial judge instructed the jury accordingly, and Rick was convicted and sentenced to 49 months in prison. His appeal kept him out of jail.
The state’s court of appeals found Rick’s argument about the law’s interpretation more convincing. When a criminal statute is ambiguous and subject to alternative interpretations, courts generally apply a “rule of lenity” toward the defendant to avoid convicting somebody for conduct that was not clearly criminal. Rick, the court found, fulfilled his legal obligations by disclosing his HIV status to D.B., who could make an informed judgment about engaging in unprotected anal sex.
The Supreme Court agreed with this approach. Examining various interpretations of the provision, Justice Gildea concluded that most cut in favor of holding it was not intended by the legislature to deal with sex. The court found the legislature was concerned with two kinds of conduct that might transmit an infectious agent: sex and donation of blood, sperm, organs, or other body tissue. Regarding sex, the legislature was concerned with informed consent on the part of partners. On questions of donation, it intended to impose strict liability for not disclosing relevant information on screening forms.
So, in Minnesota an HIV-positive person cannot donate blood, sperm, organs, or tissue except for medical purposes or unless they have disclosed their condition. And, such a person cannot engage in penetrative sex without informing their partner of their status. This interpretation of the law clearly supports the reversal of Rick’s conviction.
The case drew signification attention from outside the state, including briefs from the American Civil Liberties Union’s national LGBT/ HIV Project, Lambda Legal, and various HIV-related medical organizations.