In a surprise ruling last week, a Little Rock, Ark. court sentenced 26-year-old activist Sanjay Johnson to five years probation and ordered him to pay a $750 fine for not disclosing his HIV status to a former sexual partner, reports TheBody.com.
Though many HIV advocates argue the sentence is unfair, especially due to the details of Johnson’s case, the sentence was still lighter than expected and shows progress in the decriminalization of HIV. As of 2016, 26 states had laws that criminalize HIV exposure. These draconian laws were put in place in the 1980s, and continue to stigmatize poz people despite that for nearly 20 years, modern medicine can suppress HIV to such low levels that it's impossible to transmit ("undetectable").
Johnson's case starts in August 2017, when local police showed up at his door with a warrant for “knowingly and willfully exposing another to HIV.” Johnson, who had never been in any kind of trouble with the law, was facing a felony conviction and a possible 10 to 12 years in prison. If convicted, he would also have been required to register as a sex offender upon release.
Johnson's case has been working its way through the Arkansas courts since that time.
“I had to find strength mentally,” Johnson told Plus magazine last year when he was honored as one of our 25 Most Amazing People Living with HIV, adding that eventually he realized, “I can take control of the narrative to show that I’m not this monster or evil person that I was pictured as. It gave me courage to educate and correct [untruths] about HIV and AIDS, and HIV criminalization.”
After hearing his sentancing, Johnson responded: “Honestly, I’m grateful, but I still have a burden with probation and its restrictions and financial obligations."
Still, despite avoiding prison time and a permanent criminal record, many HIV activists argue that Johnson’s sentence is highly unjust, especially since he's undetectable. The scientifically proven consensus, known as U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable), was key in swaying the court to give Johnson the lighter sentence.
In fact, Johnson’s defense lawyer, Cheryl K. Maples, says she was finally able to get the message across to the prosecutor about U=U in the second hearing.
“He finally heard me,” Maples said of Grayson Hinojosa, deputy prosecutor with Pulaski County, Ark. “He finally got that Sanjay could not have exposed this young man to HIV because he was undetectable.”
The statute that was employed in Johnson’s no-contest plea is rarely used, according to Maples. It allows for people without any other criminal records to settle their case with a guilty or no-contest plea, accept at least one year’s probation and no more than a $3,500 fine. They will continue to have no further criminal record.
However, the state law also specifically bans defendants who have been charged with “exposing another person to the human immunodeficiency virus.” But with Johnson being virally suppressed, the exposure clause is no longer valid — thus proving the urgent need to revise (or eradicate) all HIV criminalization laws.
Maples is jumping on the opportunity to help others like Johnson. She is currently preparing a case for the United States District Court in Western Arkansas to challenge the HIV criminalization law that initially had Johnson arrested. Ultimately, says Maples, “the [HIV crime] law is unconstitutional.”
Though Johnson says is he is happy and relieved about the final outcome, the case has definitely taken a toll on his physical and mental stability.
“I’m still looking for a better stable job,” he told TheBody.com. “I was terminated from my job at the hospital [where I was employed] for over three years. My work performance went down since I’ve been going through this ordeal, and it affected me mentally and led to my dismissal. I didn’t work for three months, but was applying and having interviews, and started working on Jan. 7.”
He added, “I would like be in a position where I could work while getting paid advocating and educating on HIV and criminalization, and maybe write a book about my experiences. I still will continue to advance in my woodcarving and photography and other creative passions. I just want to be a genuine example to those who are like me that you can overcome adversity.”