Twenty years ago in Shreveport, Louisiana, a young 20-something Robert Suttle learned of his HIV diagnosis while attempting to join the U.S. military. Five years later, he was arrested at work and prosecuted under the “Intentional Exposure to HIV” statute in Louisiana by someone with whom he'd had a brief relationship. Today, at 44 years old, Suttle’s status as a registered sexual offender lasts another 15 years.
Suttle alleges the man, whom he met at a New Year’s Eve party, knew of his HIV status prior to engaging in sex.
Suttle took a plea deal, a two-year probated sentence. He served two years at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in Gabriel, Louisiana, between 2008 and 2009. After serving two years, he was then added to the sexual offender registry, paying upwards of $100 to add his face in the local newspaper alerting community members of his status.
“People were just in shock,” Suttle said. “Here is Robert Suttle, the educated and quiet one, facing criminal charges and I think for me, I avoided the public. I retracted inward…only ever going out when I needed to.”
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
Suttle is one of thousands of Black men who have been arrested for allegedly spreading HIV intentionally in the United States over the past two decades. In Louisiana, where HIV laws are among the most severe, more than 90% of those arrested are Black.
Louisiana law states that a person cannot intentionally expose another individual to HIV through sexual contact without their “lawful consent.” To defend themselves, a person must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they had let their partner know of their status in advance of any act. Whether they actually transmitted the virus, or did so on purpose, is a secondary consideration.
While other states have rolled back their statutes, the pace of Louisiana’s sexual offender registrants appears to be accelerating. Since 2011, there has been a 48% spike in HIV registrants among Black men who have sex with men in HIV-related crime in Louisiana, according to a study from UCLA’s Williams Institute of Law. Black men only make up 15% of the Louisiana population.
Rather than curb the epidemic, advocates say that the rise in arrests is driving the spread of HIV in Louisiana by furthering stigmatization and shame among already marginalized communities. Nearly 70% of people newly diagnosed with HIV in the state are Black.
"The laws unfairly target Black men who have sex with men."
Legislative Assistant at Louisiana House of Representatives
“This draconian law leads to further stigmatization and [makes it] less likely for people to identify with living with HIV,” said Razan Badr, a congressional legal assistant in Louisiana who is working to end the state’s laws. She adds that the laws unfairly target Black men who have sex with men. “That group has a greater risk of being exposed to HIV due to prevalence in the community, not lack of responsibility and other misconceptions.”
When HIV became one of the leading causes of death in the 1980s, Louisiana joined a small cohort of states that quickly acted upon criminalizing those living with the illness. To summarize, the lead bill sponsor, Representative Kernan Hand, held that this bill was to prevent those who have HIV from having sex.
“The purpose of this bill is to deter those infected with [HIV] from remaining sexually active in the community,” Hand said during a committee meeting in which the HIV criminalization bill was passed in 1987.
The law’s primary focus is potential exposure, meaning that a person with HIV need not actually spread the virus, but merely be accused of any act that could arguably transmit the virus. In some cases, the state has punished people for merely spitting.
“Unfortunately, most of our state [law], like across the country, doesn't require transmission of HIV, nor does it require a specific intent to transmit. That means, unfortunately, there are tens of hundreds of people who've been prosecuted, otherwise criminalized,” said Mandisa Moore-O’ Neal, executive director of The Center for HIV Law Policy, at a September 2023 conference for Ending The HIV Epidemic & Fast Track Cities.
The Louisiana HIV crime statute repeatedly refers to those living with HIV as “infected persons,” which can oftentimes lead to HIV stigma. This stigma potentially leads to fear of disclosure, despair and isolation—emotions that can keep those at risk of not being treated or tested for HIV.
Claudia Bruce, a police officer in New Orleans’ sex crime unit, insists that such language is not harmful. “It can—it can appear as if it is something negative, have a negative connotation, without it actually being something negative,” she said.
Bruce’s opinion is at odds with scientific studies on the dire effects of stigmatization and public health recommendations. For example, the CDC advises against terms that “segregate the people living with HIV.”
A large number of studies have shown how shame deters people from being tested for HIV, and from staying on HIV medicine and disclosing their status. This argument is driving a push to decriminalize HIV laws in Oklahoma, another state hit hard by the epidemic.
“We have a high population of late testers,” said Mauree Turner, member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Turner says that the laws deter people from accessing HIV programs. Ending them, they say, “would help us alleviate some of that burden on the shoulders of people to be able to access healthcare.”
Louisiana’s lawmakers are far out of date with public health research, according to Dietz, who asks to be identified by first name only. He is the policy coordinator for The Louisiana Coalition on Criminalization & Health (LCCH), Ending The HIV Epidemic and Fast Track Cities conference in September. At the event, participants emphasized the importance of bridging state legislatures with coalitions like the LCCH in hopes of creating bills that decriminalize HIV in Louisiana.
Subsequently, decriminalizing HIV has been somewhat successful in other states, like Virginia. In 2021, Virginia lawmakers struck down an HIV statute that made it a class 1 misdemeanor for the failure of non-disclosure before sex, carrying a maximum 12-month jail term.
In 2017, Virginia pastor Andre Leaphart was arrested for failing to disclose his HIV status to his partner. He pointed to studies showing that HIV transmission is exceedingly rare when people take effective medicines daily, and explained that this hope, along with shame and a fear of rejection, led him to not disclose his HIV status to his then-partner. This was something he regretted. His passionate testimonies helped persuade state legislators to loosen their laws on non-disclosure in 2021.
According to Dietz, such laws not only undermine efforts to curb HIV, they also unfairly punish Black communities. Because the criminal justice system is free to interpret what potential exposure is, bias and discrimination drive decisions.
The experiences of being prosecuted for living with HIV in the state of Louisiana is a dehumanizing one, Moore-O’ Neal describes.
“It doesn't matter if the facts were sexually involved. It doesn't matter if you were accused of spitting on someone. You would have to register as a sex offender,” Moore-O’ Neal said.
Data on the disproportionate targeting of Black communities is obscured by Louisiana’s rejection of calls to collect data.
Dietz pivoted midway through their argument on criminalization regarding racial data in HIV–related crime cases. At a state and federal level, there is no requirement for police departments, or court systems, to report any information about anything that they do.
“But most parishes only started submitting their data around 2020, though most of that data is really unreliable,” Dietz said. “Especially when we're talking about pandemic years. We know that there have been around at least 200 cases of HIV criminalization in the state of Louisiana.”
The Future of HIV Decriminalization
The path to decriminalizing HIV lies at the intersection of state legislatures and the community members they protect. Advocates and health organizations like the CDC are trying to partner with state legislatures for the betterment of those living with HIV.
Earlier this year, the CDC published an HIV Criminalization Legal and Policy Assessment Tool. The tool assists lawmakers in their states in evaluating HIV criminalization laws in alignment with current scientific evidence. The tool offers insight to enhance legal and policy safeguards for those living with HIV.
In Oklahoma, Representative Turner is advocating for HB2343, a bill that strives to reevaluate the legal consequences of HIV transmission and aims to address the stigmatization, discrimination, and penalties faced by those living with HIV.
In support of public health leaders, Louisiana House of Representatives member Aimee Freeman passed HR130 to study the public health impacts of the criminalization of HIV. Badr says the study would create a task force “to study the public health outcomes related to the criminalization” of HIV.
“I'm not sure why any of the laws [HIV crime statutes] were created, right?" Turner said. “But what I do know is how they're working and functioning right now. It absolutely keeps people in the dark. Our communities have always existed. We just get stronger and stronger, and folks hate to see what a world is. That is what freedom and liberation looks like.”