Criminalizing HIV Transmission and Exposure in Canada: A Public Health Evaluation

Article excerpt

Introduction

In April 2009, the Ontario Superior Court found Johnson Aziga guilty of first-degree murder for knowingly transmitting human immunodeficinecy virus ("HIV"). Aziga had unprotected sex with women despite awareness that he had HIV, and did not disclose the illness to his partners. Two of the twelve complainants contracted HIV and later died from related illnesses, leading to the first-degree murder charges. The other complainants either did not contract HIV from Aziga or contracted it but are still alive, which led to charges of, and convictions for, aggravated sexual assault. (1)

Less than a year earlier in October 2008, Clato Lual Mabior was convicted in a Manitoba trial court for aggravated sexual assault, invitation to sexual touching and sexual interference for failing to disclose his HIV status to partners. (2) None of the six complainants contracted HIV. He was sentenced to 14 years in jail. (3) The Court of Appeal heard arguments in February 2010 and has reserved their decision. (4)

These cases have reinvigorated the debate about whether it is appropriate to use the criminal law in cases of HIV exposure and transmission resulting from sexual contact. This paper will evaluate the current legal context in Canada and will then evaluate arguments for and against such criminalization using a public health framework.

Legal Context in Canada

Since 1989, Canadian courts have been willing to impose criminal sanctions on individuals for the transmission of, or exposure to HIV as a result of sexual contact. Charges have ranged from offences like nuisance to sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and attempted sexual assault. (5) The Supreme Court of Canada first dealt with the issue in R. v. Cuerrier. (6) The Court unanimously held that an individual knowing of his or her HIV-positive status must inform sexual partners of that status and failure to do so can lead to criminal culpability in the form of aggravated assault charges. Numerous cases in Canada have since then affirmed this holding. (7) In fact, Canada has, per capita, "prosecuted more persons with HIV for HIV-related sexual offences than any other country." (8)

The Supreme Court in Cuerrier unanimously held that the failure of the defendant to disclose his status vitiated the consent of the complainants, resulting in sexual assault. The Court found that the lack of disclosure vitiated the complainants' consent, giving rise to a significant risk of serious bodily harm. The majority decision in Cuerrier concluded that sexual assault can be elevated to aggravated sexual assault where, in the commission of sexual assault, the defendant endangers the life of the complainant. The Court found that the risk of contracting HIV significantly endangered the lives of the complainants, justifying the aggravated sexual assault conviction.

The 2005 decision of the Crown in Ontario to charge Aziga with first-degree murder represented a significant divergence from the established principles governing the punishment of individuals who fail to disclose their HIV-positive status to partners. As such, a decade after the decision in Cuerrier, the issue of criminalizing HIV transmission is again up for debate in the public domain, this time with even more stunning consequences for individuals accused of transmitting HIV.

In order to obtain a conviction for murder the Crown must first establish that the accused committed homicide. This requires that the accused directly or indirectly caused the death of a human being. (9) Once this first element has been established, the Crown must establish that the homicide is a culpable one, being any of murder, manslaughter or infanticide. (10)

These three types of culpable homicide are each described further, with the requisite elements of murder being described at section 229 of the Criminal Code. Murder is established where it can be shown that the accused caused the death of the victim meaningfully or meant to cause bodily harm that the accused knew or was likely to know would cause the death of the victim and was reckless as to whether death ensued. …