Photo credits: Caroline Watson

On Thursday, August 13, 2015, at the American Civil Liberties Union office in San Francisco, I attended the HIV Is Not A Crime: Criminalizing It Is event. The room was full of people who, like myself, wanted to learn about the HIV criminalization laws in California, and what we could do to change them.

The moderators were Marco Castro-Bojorquez, of Lambda Legal, and Naina Khanna, of Positive Women’s Network.

UCSF’s Dr. Catherine Koss presented on the Science of HIV Transmission:




Ayako Miyashita, JD, of the Williams Institute, gave the overview of HIV criminalization laws. We learned how people living with HIV are targeted for criminal prosecution in the U.S., about the movement at the national level to reform these laws, and what the laws are in California. People living with HIV are prosecuted “based on outdated or erroneous beliefs or understanding about HIV” (Miyashita). Most laws require no transmission for a person living with HIV to be prosecuted, and some don’t even require exposure. For example, PC 647F, “Solicitation while HIV positive,” only requires the person to know that they are living with HIV, there is no sexual contact required. That law is a felony. There are five HIV criminalization laws in California, and they are ALL felonies.

Jason Tafoya gave a very powerful speech about his son, who is currently serving time in prison for having sex with someone while living with HIV. Mr. Tafoya told us about the homophobic, HIV-phobic, ignorant ways his son has been treated since the day he was arrested. He spoke about his son being denied his medication while in jail, and how the family was actually happy when he was transferred to prison because he was guaranteed to have better health care in there. He spoke about the ways the police, the judge, and the prosecution discriminated against his son based on his status and the ignorant statements that were made. Mr. Tafoya’s son didn’t pass HIV to anyone, there was no transmission. He is in prison for having sex while living with HIV.



                                                                           Jason Tafoya

Then we learned about the preliminary results from the California HIV/AIDS Research Program from Ayako Miyashita, JD.

The last presentation was the overview of proposed changes to the existing laws by Craig Pulsipher, AIDS Project Los Angeles, & Jo Michael, Equality CA. They are working to repeal four out of five HIV criminalization laws in California, and modify the fifth. The fifth law is a five year sentence enhancement for sex offenders where the victim suffers “great bodily harm.” Currently, the “great bodily harm” doesn’t need to include transmission of HIV, only exposure. The other four laws include the solicitation while living with HIV charge mentioned above, and three others that also require no transmission. No other infectious disease is treated the way HIV is. It’s crucial that we as Californians work together to overturn these ignorant, bigoted, discriminatory, stigmatizing laws.

The last part of the evening was a lively discussion about what can and should be done to repeal and change these laws. Many questions were asked and answered, and time ran out quickly. It was a very educational evening.


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Caroline Watson is the Social Justice and Communications Coordinator at HIVE, and the founder of #WeAreAllWomen. She is married to a man who is living with HIV and they have a healthy two year old daughter conceived using Treatment as Prevention (TasP).