On February 12, 2020, the state House of Representatives in Washington voted 57-40 to approve Bill 1551, which would reduce the penalty for intentionally exposing a sexual partner to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor. On March 3, 2020, the Senate passed the bill on a 26-23 vote, which will now head to Governor Jay Inslee (D) for a decision.1,2

Under the current law, a felony conviction for HIV-related assault can carry a sentence of up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine. With the passing of House Bill 1551, the crime would be a misdemeanor, with a sentence of up to 90 days in jail and a $1000 fine. However, if a person lies about his or her HIV status to a partner, the crime is a gross misdemeanor, with a sentence up to 364 days in jail and a $5000 fine.2

In addition, the new legislation calls for more intervention from local and state health officers, allowing them to recommend options ranging from testing to counseling. This includes the ability to mandate treatment for an individual determined to be placing others at risk.1

Although many have expressed their support for the modernization of the bill, there is some debate on the proposed change. For example, Representative Michelle Caldier (R-26th) voted against the measure when it went through the House, arguing that the change would pose a public safety risk. "If someone intends to cause great bodily harm with a disease like HIV, they should be punished accordingly, not given a free ticket to spread this infection to whoever they chose," Caldier wrote in a prepared statement to CNN.3

State Senator Steve O'Ban (R-28th) said he's struggling to understand the bill because people with HIV who knowingly infect multiple partners would not be charged with a felony. Therefore, many misdemeanors are no longer prosecuted because of the insufficient resources in judicial system.2

Washington will join 7 other states that have reformed or repealed 1 or more parts of criminal laws specific to HIV if Inslee signs the bill into law.1

  1. La Corte, Rachel. Washington legislature ease penalties for HIV exposure. Federal News Network. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/government-news/2020/03/washington-legislature-ease-penalties-for-hiv-exposure/. Published March 3, 2020. Accessed March 4, 2020.
  2. Drew, James. Bill to reduce the penalty for exposing a partner to HIV triggers concerns. The News Tribune. https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/politics-government/article240517866.html. Published February 22, 2020. Accessed March 4, 2020.
  3. Asmelash, Leah. Washington state legislators voted to reduce penalty for intentionally exposing a sexual partner to HIV. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/27/us/washington-hiv-aids-felony-bill-trnd/index.html. Published February 27, 2020. Accessed March 4, 2020.