By Saundra Young, CNN Sr. Medical Producer (CNN) — The nightmare Nick Rhoades has been living the past four years began after a one-time sexual encounter with another Iowa man, Adam Plendl.
It was June 2008. The 34-year-old Rhoades, who is HIV positive, says he was on antiretroviral medications. His viral load — the amount of virus in his blood — at the time was undetectable and he says he wore a condom. But Plendl contacted the police because Rhoades did not disclose his HIV status.
What happened next, Rhoades says, changed his life forever.
The former hotel administrator was arrested three months later. The official charge: criminal transmission of HIV — a class B felony in Iowa, where the encounter occurred. Other crimes in this category include manslaughter, kidnapping, drug crimes and robbery.
“I was in shock, trying to figure out where this was all going,” Rhoades says. “My heart was racing a million miles an hour. I’d never been in trouble.”
But Plendl, 22 at the time, says his life was forever changed as well, and that he was severely depressed and suffered panic attacks while waiting to find out if he was infected.
“It was 181 days of pure fear, that six-month window when you don’t know,” he says.
“Individuals that are HIV positive have a moral and currently legal obligation to inform any of their sexual partners of their positive status. Individuals should have the choice as to whether or not they would engage with someone who is HIV positive when they are not. In this case, that choice — and what I also consider a right — was not afforded to me.”
In many countries, intentionally or recklessly infecting another person with HIV is a crime. In the United States, the Center for HIV Law and Policy says 32 states, including Iowa, and two territories — Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands — have such laws on their books.
In fact, GNP+, the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, lists the United States at the top of its list of 15 “hot spots” for HIV criminalization.
Now, a debate is under way regarding whether those laws need to be updated or even repealed.
‘I felt pretty less than human’
Rhoades ended up pleading guilty. “I entered a guilty plea based on the advice of my attorney,” he says. “I really didn’t understand the law; I didn’t understand it enough to know I shouldn’t plead guilty.”
So he went to jail, even though Plendl says hospital tests confirmed he was not infected with HIV. His bond was set at $250,000. Unable to post bail, Rhoades spent the next nine months in the Black Hawk County jail.
“I spent six weeks in solitary confinement,” he says. “I was in a cell for 23 hours a day with a camera on 24 hours a day. I was allowed just one visit per week. I could not see out a window.
“For nine months I never saw the sun, except for one time on my way to a medical appointment. I was taken to that medical appointment in my orange jumpsuit and my cuffs and shackles. A mother and daughter saw me in the waiting room and got up and moved away from me. I felt pretty less than human.”
On September 11, 2009, Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was moved to the Clarinda Correctional Facility in Clarinda, Iowa, to begin serving that sentence.
After four months in Clarinda, and a successful letter-writing campaign to the judge calling for him to be freed, Rhoades was re-sentenced. His 25 years was reduced to the time he had served, plus five years of supervised probation. He also had to register as a sex offender, and will continue to do so for the rest of his life.
“When you’re a sex offender there’s so much stigma and people jump to conclusions,” Rhoades says. “My life is forever changed. Do a Google search for my name and some pretty horrific stuff comes up. I have had to change a private medical condition and a private life to public domain.
“That’s not to say I can’t be happy, find employment, have a satisfying life, but it’s never going to just go away.”
Federal, state laws on criminalization
HIV criminalization laws began in 1990 when the federal Ryan White CARE Act passed. That law mandated that states criminalize intentional transmission of HIV in order to get funding for treatment and prevention programs.
Some states took it a step further than federal law required, defining intentional transmission as failing to disclose positive status to a sexual partner. The second time the act was reauthorized, in 2000, the requirement that states must criminalize intentional transmission was removed.
The criminalization laws were put in place to protect the public — to prevent cases where someone with HIV knowingly exposed others to the virus and did not disclose their HIV status before a sexual encounter.
In 2010, for example, an HIV-positive man was arrested in Indiana for knowingly and intentionally exposing more than 100 women to the virus over five years. Earlier this year, a Michigan man admitted to police that he was trying to infect as many people as possible and told authorities that over the past three years, he had had unprotected sex with thousands of people.