Globally, prosecutions for non-disclosure, exposure or transmission of HIV frequently relate to sexual activity, biting, or spitting. This includes instances in which no harm was intended, HIV transmission did not occur, and HIV transmission was extremely unlikely or not possible. This suggests prosecutions are not always guided by the best available scientific and medical evidence.
Twenty scientists from regions across the world developed this Expert Consensus Statement to address the use of HIV science by the criminal justice system. A detailed analysis of the best available scientific and medical research data on HIV transmission, treatment effectiveness and forensic phylogenetic evidence was performed and described so it may be better understood in criminal law contexts. Description of the possibility of HIV transmission was limited to acts most often at issue in criminal cases. The possibility of HIV transmission during a single, specific act was positioned along a continuum of risk, noting that the possibility of HIV transmission varies according to a range of intersecting factors including viral load, condom use, and other risk reduction practices. Current evidence suggests the possibility of HIV transmission during a single episode of sex, biting or spitting ranges from no possibility to low possibility. Further research considered the positive health impact of modern antiretroviral therapies that have improved the life expectancy of most people living with HIV to a point similar to their HIV-negative counterparts, transforming HIV infection into a chronic, manageable health condition. Lastly, consideration of the use of scientific evidence in court found that phylogenetic analysis alone cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that one person infected another although it can be used to exonerate a defendant.
The application of up-to-date scientific evidence in criminal cases has the potential to limit unjust prosecutions and convictions. The authors recommend that caution be exercised when considering prosecution, and encourage governments and those working in legal and judicial systems to pay close attention to the significant advances in HIV science that have occurred over the last three decades to ensure current scientific knowledge informs application of the law in cases related to HIV.
- Criminal law
- Human rights
- Law and policy
- Risk factors