The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday set aside the conviction of a man who pleaded guilty to criminal transmission of HIV but later argued that he got insufficient legal advice in making the plea.
In a decision praised by some gay rights activists as recognizing modern treatment of HIV, the court by a 6-1 margin overturned district court and state appeals court rulings that upheld the 2009 guilty plea of Nick Rhoades.
Rhoades admitted he had a sexual encounter in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with a man he met on a social networking site. Rhoades said he did not tell the man he was diagnosed with HIV, as required by Iowa law, and received a 25-year sentence, later changed to five years' probation.
Rhoades and the man engaged in consensual unprotected oral sex and protected anal sex but the amount of HIV in Rhoades' blood – known as a viral load – was so low that the risk of transmission was very small, the supreme court opinion said.
Although the man did not get HIV from the sexual contact, transmission of the disease is not required for conviction under Iowa law, the Supreme Court noted. Rhoades failed to tell the man about his HIV and a few days later the man went to police, the court said.
The minutes of the court testimony "do not establish a factual basis that an exchange of bodily fluid took place or that Rhoades intentionally exposed A.P. (the man) to his bodily fluid in a manner that could result in the transmission of HIV," Justice David Wiggins wrote for the court.
The gay rights group, Lambda Legal, commended the court's finding that viral loads can be reduced through effective treatment and result in little risk of transmitting HIV.
"An individual who takes precautions to prevent transmission should not be considered a criminal for choosing to be sexually active, and we are very pleased that the court agrees," Lambda lawyer Christopher Clark, who represented Rhoades, said in a statement.
The Iowa Supreme Court remanded the case to Black Hawk County District Court, where prosecutors will have another chance to establish a factual basis for Rhoades' guilty plea.
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City; Editing by Sandra Maler)