Whenever Robert Suttle thinks about his time in jail, his eyes go soft, he lets out a long breath and his lips purse a bit. It’s noticeable that he — after almost a decade — still gets emotional about what put him behind bars.
In 2008, while working as an assistant clerk for the Louisiana Court of Appeals, Suttle went through a bitter breakup that resulted in a tit-for-tat trial, ending in Suttle being sentenced to six months in jail and registering as a sex offender for intentionally exposing a sexual partner to HIV. But there was no transmission of the virus.
And even though Suttle says he disclosed his status to his partner and that the sex was consensual, it didn’t matter much under Louisiana’s HIV exposure law, which states that anyone with HIV or AIDS who has unprotected sex can be tried and charged with a nonviolent felony. Offenders can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and must register as a sex offender in some cases.
But Louisiana’s intentional HIV exposure statute, enacted in 1987, revised in 1993 and again in 2011, is out of date and not backed by science. For example, spitting and biting are considered grounds to be charged for criminal exposure to AIDS, even though it’s impossible to transfer the virus through spit and exceedingly rare for HIV to be passed on through biting (and the risk is nonexistent if the skin isn’t broken).
What’s more, Suttle, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2002, couldn’t pass the virus on anyway. Antiretroviral treatment had made his viral load undetectable, which means the level of HIV in his blood was so low that it would’ve been impossible to transmit.
“I didn’t quite understand how it could come to this,” Suttle says. “It was being gay and HIV positive that led me to … being criminally liable.”
As more people become aware of possible criminal charges — thanks in part to local reporting on alleged offenders — some of those most at-risk are unwilling to get tested. Criminalizing one’s status has created a stigma, advocates say, which in turn can endanger whole communities.
“[People know] that if they test positive, they can get charged or arrested,” says Gina Brown, an HIV and AIDS activist in New Orleans who is HIV positive. “The laws need to change, and people in charge need to get educated.”
Across the nation, HIV transmissions have been steadily declining since the beginning of the decade. At the same time, the demographics of the disease have changed. No longer does HIV primarily affect gay men; today, those who are most at risk also include injection drug users and poor people of color, particularly in the South. Despite that shift, regulations and laws that criminalize one’s HIV status still abound, and they have roots in outdated science that has largely been debunked.
There are currently 26 states with HIV-specific criminalization laws, some of which penalize behavior regardless of whether the virus was actually transmitted. That number was higher in the 1980s and ’90s, when fear of HIV — and myths around how it spread — was rampant. Lawmakers claimed at the time that the statutes were meant to protect the general public. Instead, they have had the opposite effect: Since you can’t be prosecuted if you don’t know your status, there’s an incentive to not getting tested. Studies have also shown that HIV criminalization has little to no effect on deterring people from spreading the virus willingly, and in fact, such laws have only worsened its spread.
Nearly all of the states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses — in 2017, Louisiana ranked third — have HIV-specific exposure laws still on the books.
“People don’t know the collateral consequences,” says Suttle, who now works as an assistant director at Sero Project, a nonprofit that fights stigma and discrimination by focusing on HIV criminalization. “These laws hinder people from getting care.”
Suttle says the biggest obstacle is education, especially among people who still view HIV and AIDS as a death sentence.
“Education of the masses cannot be stressed enough. You can talk to anybody, and people honestly think that [people charged under HIV exposure laws] should be fully prosecuted and locked up,” Suttle says, adding that Sero Project has tried to humanize people living with HIV through anti-criminalization campaigns, lobbying and public outreach.
Sero Project is one of only a handful of national organizations — the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Center for HIV Law and Policy are two others — that have been on the front lines of fighting against HIV criminalization.
This year, Sero Project, in partnership with the Positive Women’s Network, launched a training academy to teach advocates how to organize and repeal state HIV criminalization laws. In South Carolina, Sero Project’s training helped establish a coalition of 50 lawmakers, advocates and nonprofits to try and change the state’s HIV criminalization laws.
“They gave us the tools to do our own work here within our community, and educate people. Now we have more and more people who are interested, because every time we get out and share with the community, we’re getting more people asking about the laws,” says Stacy Jennings, chair of the Positive Women’s Network regional chapter in South Carolina. “It’s sad that [people living with HIV] don’t know [about the laws] because they should know. Every chance we get we’re teaching them.”
As a result of Sero Project’s efforts to get communities educated on local laws, Suttle has seen a sea change in the number of people coming forward to fight the stigma around being HIV positive.
And that’s been helpful in places like Louisiana, where advocates say the need for educating and empowering people to get tested and stay healthy is dire.
“We actually have been able to get into the offices of legislators and tell them why this law is outdated and plain wrong,” says Brown, the AIDS activist. “We have some of the highest rates of HIV transmission in the country, and that won’t get better so long as there are laws that actively make people fearful of getting tested.”