If there was a star of this summer’s HIV is Not a Crime conference earlier this year, it was Nick Rhoades, a 40-year-old former hotel administrator from Plainfield, Iowa. In 2008, the HIV-positive Rhoades had a one-time sexual encounter. He used a condom, had an undetectable viral load, and did not transmit HIV but was sentenced to 25 years by an Iowa court for failing to disclose his status. Rhoades was charged under Iowa’s HIV-specific criminal law, a class B felony along the same lines as manslaughter, kidnapping, or robbery.
In 2009, the sentence was suspended and he was placed on five years probation and 10 years on the state’s sex offender registry. The latter required, among other restrictions, that his contact with children, even his relatives, be limited and that anyone he wanted to have sex with be approved by his probation officer in advance.
Instead of going shyly into the night as some wrongly convicted might do, Rhoades became a founding member of the Sero Project, a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice, particularly focused on ending inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV for non-disclosure of their status, potential or perceived HIV exposure or transmission.
Then this summer, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned Rhoades conviction. However, Rhoades awaits the decision on October 1 by the county attorney on whether they are going to prosecute, offer a plea bargain or drop the charges. Rhoades was removed from the state's sex offender registry due to a retroactive clause contained in the bill SF2277. In a tear-filled ceremony during the Grinnell College-based HIV conference, State Senator Matt McCoy used giant bolt cutters to remove the GPS monitoring ankle bracelet that Rhoades had been wearing since he was released from prison. (Another gay man, Donald Bogardus, also had his GPS removed.)
“This is a victory for human rights, defenders of justice and people with HIV everywhere,” said Sean Strub, the executive director of Sero Project. “Sero is proud to have worked with Nick Rhoades for the last few years. Let this message from the Iowa Supreme Court go forth to all the states and jurisdictions around the world that wrongfully use HIV status in criminal prosecutions and encourage them to reform their statutes and prosecutorial policies.”