The Georgia Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill to modernize the state’s HIV laws on Monday. The bipartisan show of support impressed HIV activists fighting for years to reform state laws that criminalize HIV.
Senate Bill 164 won approval with a 50-2 vote. The bill from Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican from Rome, passed on Crossover Day – the deadline to keep the measure alive for the remainder of the legislative session.
“We are extremely pleased that this bill passed the Senate with such a strong bipartisan majority vote,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “Frankly, it’s even stronger bipartisan support than we saw when the same legislation passed the House last year.”
The two no votes came from Republicans – Sens. Matt Brass of Newnan and Greg Dolezal of Cumming.
The bill now moves to the state House, which could refer it to the Health & Human Services Committee. Last year, that committee unanimously approved similar legislation, and the House later approved it by a 124-40 vote.
Hufstetler’s measure would require prosecutors to show a person charged with exposing someone to HIV through sex had an “intent to transmit HIV” and posed a “significant risk of transmission” based on current science.
Current Georgia law makes it a crime for people living with HIV to have sex or donate blood without disclosing their status, regardless of whether they intend to transmit HIV or pose any risk. It’s a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
State law also criminalizes spitting at or using bodily fluids on law enforcement or corrections officers by a person living with HIV, an offense that can carry up to 20 years in prison. Hufstetler’s bill removes criminal penalties for people living with HIV who share needles, donate blood or spit at or use bodily fluids on police and corrections officers.
The proposal also changes state law to refer to people “living with HIV” instead of “an HIV-infected person.”
The legislation keeps intentional HIV exposure as a felony, but it lowers the maximum prison sentence from 10 years to five.
Supporters of the bill hope to convince House lawmakers to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor. Last year, House Bill 719 downgraded the crime to a misdemeanor, but it was reverted back to a felony by the time the full House voted on it.
“It is our hope that we can have some conversations about bringing it back down to a misdemeanor and not felony charges,” Graham said.
Graham is hopeful that the House will pass the legislation this session, delivering revisions to the state’s HIV criminalization laws that activists have been championing for nearly a decade.
“The legislature understands that the criminal statutes around HIV in Georgia do need to be modernized and updated to reflect the current science of how HIV is and is not transmitted. It is a critical step around broader criminal justice reform,” he said.
“It has had strong bipartisan support in both chambers, and I certainly hope that we can see movement on the bill during the remainder of the session,” Graham added.