Former San Francisco Health Commissioner Indicted on Two Counts of Knowingly Transmitting HIV to Sexual Partners
Former San Francisco Health Commissioner Ron Hill, who is HIV-positive, was jailed on Wednesday after being indicted under a California law that makes it a crime to intentionally infect a sexual partner with HIV, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Hill was arrested after a San Francisco grand jury on Sept. 12 handed down an indictment alleging Hill had engaged in a pattern of soliciting sex with men and telling them he was not HIV-positive. At least two HIV-positive men testified before the grand jury claiming that Hill had repeatedly told them he was not HIV-positive during their relationships. The grand jury also heard testimony that Hill had solicited sex partners over the Internet, according to the Chronicle (Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/18). Assistant District Attorney Greg Barge said that the indictment had two counts, one for each of the men who testified, according to the AP/Oakland Tribune. Hill was being held at the Grass Valley jail on Thursday for $100,000 bond, a jail spokesperson said, the AP/Tribune reports (Curtis, AP/Oakland Tribune, 9/19). If convicted, Hill could face as many as 10 years in prison, according to the Los Angeles Times. Officials said that an arraignment could be held on Monday (Glionna, Los Angeles Times, 9/19).
Some prosecutors have criticized California's five-year-old law (SB 705) criminalizing the act of knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV, saying the law is too narrow, making it difficult to secure convictions. Since the law was enacted in 1998, only one person has been convicted under the measure. The law makes it a felony to knowingly expose or infect an unaware person to HIV. The law also allows a person's HIV status to be disclosed if the person is the subject of a criminal investigation for committing this crime. Laws in 24 other states make it a crime for individuals who know they are HIV-positive to engage in unprotected sex without informing their partners of their status. However, California's law requires prosecutors to prove that defendants acted "with the specific intent" to transmit HIV to their partner or partners. The specific-intent clause has caused an ongoing debate between HIV advocates, who say the law's language protects HIV-positive people from unfounded accusations, and law enforcement officials, who say that the measure limits their ability to prosecute such cases (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/10). However, the indictment against Hill suggests that the grand jury believed there was a pattern that Hill lied to sex partners about his HIV status and that he had intentionally tried to infect them with the virus, according to the Times (Los Angeles Times, 9/18).
Thomas Lister, one of Hill's former partners, testified before the grand jury, saying that Hill knew he had HIV and repeatedly lied about his condition. Lister eventually discovered Hill's HIV status in a medical document after the two had engaged in unprotected sex during their five-month relationship. Lister tested HIV-positive in October 2002 and confronted Hill about his infection, but Hill continued to deny that he was HIV-positive. San Francisco Superior Court Commissioner Loretta Norris last year in a civil case ordered Hill to pay Lister $5 million in damages for knowingly exposing him to HIV and lying about his HIV status (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/10). However, Lister's civil attorney said Wednesday that Hill had not yet paid anything to Lister. According to the Chronicle, Hill has claimed that he was never properly served with the suit, therefore rendering it invalid. Lister said, "For me, it was never about the money. It was about the principle of the matter. I felt, deep down inside, that this was something that he can't and should not get away with" (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/18).
A 'Growing Trend'?
The San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday examined the "growing trend" of holding HIV-positive people liable for the health of their consensual sex partners. "[T]he fact of the matter is that people living with the virus have a responsibility to their fellow citizens and their sex partners to make sure they both inform their partners of their HIV status as well as to take the necessary precautions," James Loyce, director of the San Francisco Public Health Department's AIDS Office, said. However, some AIDS advocates say that such laws could hurt HIV prevention efforts. "One of the things we're concerned about is that criminalizing AIDS transmission makes it even more stigmatized and puts it more underground," University of California-San Francisco researcher Dr. Daniel Ciccarone said (Russel, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/21).