MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected a prosecutor’s effort to reinstate the conviction of an HIV-positive man accused of passing the virus to another man, ruling Wednesday that the statute under which he was convicted was ambiguous.
Groups supporting gay rights said the ruling affirms the need for government to respect the personal and private decisions of consenting adults regarding sexual intimacy. The prosecutor contended the case was never a civil rights issue, but rather about protecting the public from people who know they’re infected but practice unprotected sex anyway.
The high court affirmed a Court of Appeals decision that reversed the attempted first-degree assault conviction of Daniel James Rick, 32, of Minneapolis, who learned he was HIV positive in 2006. He had consensual sex several times starting in early 2009 with a man identified in court papers as D.B., who tested positive that October.
A jury acquitted Rick in 2011 under the first part of a Minnesota statute that applies to cases involving sex without first informing the other person that the defendant has a communicable disease. But it convicted him under another section that the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday applies only “to the donation or exchange for value of blood, sperm, organs, or tissue and therefore does not apply to acts of sexual conduct.”
Although D.B. testified that Rick did not tell him he was HIV positive before they started having sex, the jury agreed with Rick’s claim that he did. It was never conclusively determined whether it was Rick or someone else who infected D.B.
The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota welcomed the ruling.
“The court saw the problem with the way in which the state was prosecuting this case and recognized it was inappropriate to prosecute this man for this conduct,” said Scott Schoettes, HIV Project director for Lambda Legal. “And I think the victory shows that there’s a problem with these laws, and that people with HIV are going to be targeted for prosecutions like this until we reform the laws. Essentially, what the state was going was prosecuting someone for the fact he was HIV positive and had sex without a condom.”
Thirty-four states and U.S. territories have communicable disease laws that allow for criminal prosecution or enhanced sentences in HIV-specific cases.
The Supreme Court said the Minnesota Legislature has the option of clarifying the 1995 state law.
“We acknowledge that the communicable-disease statute presents difficult interpretation issues and that the Legislature may have, in fact, intended something different,” said the ruling written by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea. “If that is the case, however, it is the Legislature’s prerogative to re-examine the communicable-disease statute and amend it accordingly.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who argued the case before the Supreme Court himself, said the Legislature needs to take a fresh look at communicable diseases in light of changes in science and society, and to decide what kinds of conduct should be criminalized and what conduct should be subject to civil penalties.
“We will continue to use all other tools at our disposal to prosecute people we believe are a threat to public safety, including Mr. Rick,” Freeman said.
The prosecutor said he still considers Rick a sexual predator and noted that two criminal cases in Hennepin County and two more in other counties remain pending against him. Those cases were on hold pending this decision and can now move forward, he said.