Written by Donald A. Promnitz
A new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, which takes away the felony charge of knowingly passing HIV to a partner, is being met with controversy in the Central Valley.
Authored by state Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), SB 239 reduces the criminal charge to a misdemeanor. This would reduce the sentencing down from an eight-year sentence in a state prison to six months in a county jail.
“Today, California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue, instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” Wiener said at the bill’s signing. “HIV should be treated like all other serious infectious diseases, and that’s what SB 239 does.”
Wiener’s legislation comes at a time when HIV is being found in a high rate among millennials. According to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of those diagnosed in 2015 were between the ages of 20 and 29.
In Fresno County, 98 new cases of HIV/AIDS were reported in 2016. Jena Adams Fresno County Public Health Department’s supervising communicable disease specialist, said that this is actually down from 102 new cases in 2015.
The bill was met with opposition in the Central Valley. Assemblymembers Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neils), Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) and Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) voted against SB 239, Salas being one of only two Democrats to do so.
It has received further criticism by Madera County District Attorney David Linn.
“I believe that it was a mistake for the senate and the legislature to pass it, and it was even a bigger mistake for the governor to sign this bill,” Linn said. “I think it’s another example of Gov. Brown’s administration trying to do away with the laws in California.”
Assemblyman Dr. Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) voted in favor of the bill.
“I voted for SB 239 to bring parity with laws regarding all other communicable diseases and end a stigmatizing law adopted over 25 years ago when we had a very limited medical understanding of HIV,” Dr. Arambula said. “Evidence shows that the increased penalty did not serve any public benefit.”
While saying that he understood the desire to avoid stigma, Linn said that special laws for certain illnesses is nothing unprecedented.
“This is not a novel idea,” Linn said. “I mean, back in the early part of the 20th century when tuberculosis was rampant, it was very common for jurisdictions to pass laws where people knew that they had tuberculosis and had been diagnosed with it could not come within the city limits.”
One of the main cited reasons for the bill was the protection of sex workers, and 95 percent of HIV-specific criminal cases in California have been related to prostitution. Sen. Wiener also argued that criminalization and social stigma keep those who are potentially infected with HIV from getting tested.
While declining to comment on SB 239, Adams said that one of the main causes among millennials for not getting tested for HIV is a lack of understanding and concern, despite it being a life-altering illness.
“I don’t think HIV is on the radar for Millennials You don’t really hear about HIV that often like you did back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Adams said. “And I think a lot of that has to with all of the advancements that have been made.”
Adams stated that with advancements in treatment of HIV/AIDS, there isn’t a strong message of prevention among younger people compared to when AIDS first emerged as a public health crisis.
“When I started this job in 1994, young people knew because they heard the message all the time — it was everywhere,” she said. “They knew they needed to get tested every six months to know their status, the importance of using protection. And those messages aren’t as voiced as often as they were back then.”
Others have pointed out the possibility of persons with HIV infecting others either intentionally or without regards to a partner’s safety and health. For example, Thomas Guerra pleaded no contest in San Diego for knowingly spreading HIV in 2015. A native to the San Joaquin Valley, Guerra said at his sentencing that he had “no remorse” for his actions. The charge in this case was a misdemeanor.
“We certainly want to punish people that go out and intentionally infect other citizens in the state of California. That’s a crime — it’s bodily injury they’re admitting if in fact they infect someone with HIV.” Linn said. “It’s no different than breaking their jaw, or creating some form of mayhem to the citizen.”