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Assault by deadly disease may get expanded definition in state's criminal laws
By Zoey Palmer
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
A Washington state law that criminalizes intentionally infecting other persons with HIV without their consent may be expanded to include any disease that is dangerous or deadly.
House Bill 1018, sponsored by Rep. Jim Moeller (D-49th District, Vancouver), amends existing state laws defining assault, replacing the language singling out HIV with a more general definition of communicable disease.
Moeller, who is the bill's sole sponsor, says the original language of the law, which took effect in 1988, reflected attitudes about HIV (the virus that can cause AIDS) that are no longer relevant.
"A lot has changed over the years regarding HIV," he said during a public hearing at a House Public Safety Committee meeting Jan. 17. "There was a great deal of fear – unreasonable fear – around HIV. This bill simply removes that stigma," he said.
Other states have already made similar changes to their laws to reflect a modern understanding of HIV, said Moeller, who is one of six openly gay members of the Legislature.
Along with eliminating language specifying HIV, the bill changes the legal definition of poison to include fluids infected with a dangerous disease, regardless of how it is transmitted. The amended law would include any illness – including HIV – that, if left untreated, normally results in serious harm or death.
"What we've learned is that there are other diseases out there that are equally if not more dangerous than HIV," said Moeller.
Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys executive secretary Tom McBride said during the hearing that, despite the much broader language, he doesn't expect a large increase in first-degree assault cases because the law requires that there is intent to cause serious harm or death.
"There's no point to single out a disease here," said McBride, whose organization supports the bill.
There have only been three successfully prosecuted first-degree assault cases under the current law since it went into effect, he said. "Getting into somebody's head and being able to prove specifically what they intend" is extremely difficult, said McBride.
First-degree assault is a Class A felony, which can carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The bill also removes an exception for HIV from a law that criminalizes knowingly infecting another person with an STD without his or her consent, a gross misdemeanor that can result in up to one year in prison.
Carey Morris, a lobbyist for Lifelong AIDS Alliance, a Seattle-based non-profit, testified in support of the bill at last week's hearing. The American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed support.
Moeller says that, because of support from state prosecutors, unions and social-justice groups, he doesn't expect any major difficulties passing the bill in the House.
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee vote.