Last week, an Ohio man who has the hepatitis C virus was sentenced to 18 months in prison for spitting at Cleveland police and medics.
Matthew Wenzler, 27, was reportedly lying on a Cleveland street across from a downtown casino in January. When police and emergency medical technicians tried to put him on a stretcher to take him to a hospital, he spit saliva mixed with blood repeatedly at them, hitting an officer in the eye.
In Ohio, it’s a felony for people who know they have HIV, viral hepatitis or tuberculosis to intentionally expose another person to their blood, semen, urine, feces or other bodily substances such as saliva with the intent to harass or threaten the person.
Advocates for people living with diseases like hepatitis C and HIV say these laws add to the stigma that patients already face and studies suggest the laws are not effective at stopping the spread of disease.
“This person is now facing a year and a half of incarceration for something that didn’t harm anyone and didn’t pose a risk of harm to anyone,” said Kate Boulton, a staff attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy.
Roughly two-thirds of states, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, have laws that make it a crime to knowingly expose others to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Many of these laws were passed in the 1980s and 1990s when fear and stigma about HIV were high and contracting the disease was considered a death sentence.
In recent years, about a dozen states have added hepatitis C to the list of medical conditions for which people can face criminal prosecution if they knowingly expose others by engaging in certain activities like sex without disclosure, needle-sharing or organ donation.
Public health officials say these provisions, which are sometimes tacked on to existing HIV laws, are likely to be ineffective at stemming transmission of the disease. They may even exacerbate the problem.
“If you have to let people know that you are infected with HIV or…