New York's Highest Court Rules Knowingly Infecting A Partner With HIV Is A Misdemeanor, Not A Felony

New York’s Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, ruled last week that knowingly infecting a partner with HIV is not a crime of sufficient “cruelty, brutality, or callousness” as to warrant felony prosecution.  In the case at issue, People v. Terrance Williams, the defendant:

  • Learned he was HIV positive approximately eight months before meeting the victim;
  • Discussed with the victim the dangers of HIV and the need to be careful to avoid infection;
  • But never told the victim he was HIV positive.

The first time the defendant and victim had sex, the victim attempted to use a condom – but the defendant took it away.  The victim then asked the defendant four times whether it was safe to carry on without a condom, and the defendant falsely assured the victim that it was.

Based on the above evidence, a grand jury indicted the defendant for first degree reckless endangerment – a felony.  To indict a defendant for a felony reckless endangerment charge, the prosecution must present evidence to the grand jury which shows that the defendant exhibited “wanton cruelty, brutality or callousness [toward] . . . a particularly vulnerable victim” and that the defendant had shown “utter indifference to the life or safety of the helpless [victim]”.  Although the Court of Appeals characterized the defendant’s conduct as “without a doubt . . . reckless, selfish and reprehensible”, the court ruled that the evidence presented to the grand jury did not rise to the level of indifference for human safety necessary to pursue a felony prosecution.

In a lone dissent, Judge Eugen Pigott Jr. argued that the evidence presented was sufficient for the grand jury to indict the defendant for a felony charge.

Although numerous civil rights groups and medical professionals lauded the court’s decision as progress toward removing the stigma associated with HIV, this case sets a troubling precedent.  HIV is a very serious disease which, once acquired, requires lifelong treatment.  And despite wonderful medical advances, HIV can still lead to AIDS and AIDS still kills.  When a person infects their partner with a potentially deadly disease by repeatedly lying about whether he or she is carrying the disease and affirmatively discouraging the partner from using protection, it is difficult to rationalize how such conduct falls short of “cruelty, brutality, or callousness.”

Article written by Michael Keenan, associate attorney at Hinman, Howard & Kattell, LLP.  To contact Mr. Keenan directly email him at mkeenan@hhk.com or call (607) 723-5341.

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