A HIV-positive man found guilty of a felony for having unprotected sex with a partner who contracted the disease was wrongfully convicted under an incorrect interpretation of an ambiguous state law, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The unanimous ruling marked the culmination of a case closely watched by AIDS activists and the American Civil Liberties Union. They cheered the outcome more than two years after Daniel James Rick, 32, was convicted by a Hennepin County jury of attempted assault even though he notified his sexual partner of his HIV-positive status. He was found guilty under a 17-year-old state law that the Supreme Court court said referred to sperm donation, not sex. The decision backed a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling that overturned Rick’s conviction last year.
“If this conviction had been upheld, it would have been saying that sex is a lethal weapon,” said Dr. Michael Horberg, chair of the HIV Medicine Association. “Obviously the original intent of the law was specifically for organ and tissue donation, including sperm. That is a vastly different situation than what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home.”
But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who argued Rick’s case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, said that despite his disappointment in the ruling, they will continue with the prosecution of pending criminal sexual conduct cases against Rick, while encouraging Minnesota lawmakers to clarify the law.
“We need clear tools to prosecute folks who have serious communicable diseases not necessarily limited to HIV and AIDS, but others that can cause serious harm,” he said. “What Daniel Rick has done is a public health and public safety threat.”
Legislative intent scrutinized
Jurors convicted Rick in 2011 of attempted first-degree assault following multiple sexual encounters with a man who eventually tested positive for HIV. That man testified that he had sex with Rick several times, both before and after he discovered in 2009 that he was HIV-positive. He testified that Rick never told him about his HIV status although Rick, who tested positive in 2006, contended he told his partner he was positive before they had sex, and that he figured his partner was also HIV-positive.
According to state statute 609.2241, a person commits a crime when transferring a communicable disease through “sexual penetration with another person without having first informed the other person” of their positive status, or by the “transfer of blood, sperm, organs or tissues, except as deemed necessary for medical research or if disclosed on donor screening forms.”
The jury believed Rick informed his partner and found him not guilty under the first subdivision of the statute, but convicted him on the second. Rick’s attorneys argued the second subdivision was intended to apply to medical procedures, not sex. The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed and overturned Rick’s conviction in 2012 in a 2-1 decision.
In a 16-page opinion that was dedicated largely to analyzing the language in the statute, the Supreme Court agreed that the wording was ambiguous. The term “transfer” in the second subdivision of the law, as it is written, does not include sexual conduct.
“While sperm might be characterized as an asset of property in a medical context, such as with respect to fertility, that characterization is not applicable to sperm transmitted to another through sexual conduct,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote.
The court also analyzed earlier versions of the legislation to determine the intent of other lawmakers who drafted it. Earlier proposed versions of the law used the term “donate” rather than “transfer.”
“We acknowledge that the communicable-disease statute presents difficult interpretation issues and that the Legislature may have, in fact, intended something different,” Gildea wrote. “If that is the case, however, it is the Legislature’s prerogative to re-examine the communicable-disease statute and amend it accordingly.”
Still faces 3 counts
Although the ruling is a victory for Rick, he faces three more counts of attempted first-degree assault and third-degree criminal sexual conduct in earlier cases that also involved HIV transmission.
Rick was also convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for having sex with a 15-year-old in Sherburne County. He received two months’ jail time and probation.
His attorney, Landon Ascheman, declined to discuss the pending cases, which have been on hold pending the Supreme Court ruling, which he called “the best possible outcome” for his client and Minnesotans. He said the Supreme Court’s interpretation is what legislators intended, and attempts to clarify it in language favorable to the prosecution “would be a terrible political decision.”
“Any attempt to modify and expand this would simply result in an uproar,” he said.