Iowa Supreme Court throws out criminal transmission of HIV conviction

Nick Rhoades had been sentenced to 25 years in prison

Nick Rhoades
Nick Rhoades

A criminal transmission of HIV conviction for Plainfield man Nick Rhoades should be thrown out, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Rhoades, 39, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to criminal transmission of HIV after a 2008 arrest.

The arrest came after Rhoades had protected sex with a man to whom he did not disclose his HIV status. The man later went to the police.

The man did not test positive for HIV after their encounter, but under the law transmission does not have to occur for someone to be convicted.

Rhoades began serving his sentence before a District Court judge released him on a five-year probation. He also was required to register as a sex offender.

Rhoades appealed the case, arguing his original trial attorney gave him faulty advice by recommending he plead guilty.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed.

“His trial counsel allowed Rhoades to plead guilty when no factual basis existed for the plea,” wrote Justice David Wiggins in the majority opinion.

Because Rhoades used a condom and because he had an undetectable viral load — meaning the level of the HIV in his blood was very low, making transmission unlikely — his conviction was unjust, Wiggins wrote.

The law’s language required “intentional exposure” in a way that could result in the transmission of HIV, Wiggins wrote. He wrote that strides in the treatment and prevention of HIV mean that “intentional exposure” did not occur in this case.

“Based on the state of medicine both now and at the time of the plea in 2009, we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV, regardless of an infected individual’s viral load, when that individual engages in protected anal or unprotected oral sex with an uninfected person,” Wiggins wrote.

Today’s ruling sends the case back to the Black Hawk County District Court, where prosecutors will have another chance to show Rhoades violated the law. If they cannot demonstrate he committed a crime, Rhoades should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, the ruling said.

After his arrest, Rhoades became an advocate for reforming Iowa’s criminal transmission of HIV law. He and other activists lobbied state lawmakers to update the law. In May, Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation that lessens penalties and takes into account factors including whether defendants took precautions.

“We applaud the Court for applying the law in light of current medical understanding of how HIV is and is not transmitted,” said Christopher Clark, counsel for Lambda Legal, which represented Rhoades during the appeal. “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.”

Black Hawk County Attorney Tom Ferguson said his office would look over the court’s decision before deciding how to proceed.

“We will review the investigation that was conducted and the court’s decision and make a determination in consultation with the victim and the attorney general’s office,” he said.

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