AIDS and Sex Offenders

FOR THE FOURTH year in a row, the Minnesota Legislature is considering a bill that would mandate HIV testing for alleged sex offenders. Previous attempts have failed largely due to the wording of the amendments. In order to qualify for federal subsidies to underwrite the testing, any state legislation must include a provision requiring any convicted sex offender to submit to a test upon the victim's request. This session, the House of Representatives has drafted the proposed amendment in a manner that broadens the scope considerably, and has opponents alarmed over the potential damage to civil liberties.

The House version was originally drafted to require testing after a conviction, but it has since been rewritten to mandate an HIV test when an adult is charged or a juvenile petitioned. And it's not only alleged sex offenders who fall under this legislative gun; the amendment now calls for testing of alleged perpetrators of "any other violent crime." In addition, the language would also allow a cop or prison guard to request testing of an offender if there has been "significant exposure."

While supporters of the amendment are pushing it as a victims' rights measure, Bob Tracy--the public policy director for the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP)--maintains this is a hollow premise. "It would not alter how a victim responds to an assault. The common practice among sexual assault victim advocates is to encourage immediate counseling and medical care." He further states that victims rarely request offender tests, and most professionals view the HIV status of the alleged perpetrator as unreliable and unusable, largely because of the virus's "window" period. (Depending on the individual, the time frame for detecting HIV antibodies can vary from a few weeks up to six months following exposure.)

Tracy also faults the amendment for providing special protection to a portion of the population he deems as extremely low risk. "Health care workers are at risk through occupational exposure, yet according to a study conducted by the CDC from 1988 to 1994, professional risk is estimated at 0.3 percent." Tracy is similarly alarmed by the vagueness of the term "significant exposure," and the lack of precise directives regarding the release of test results. While he concedes the amendment currently precludes any mention of the test or results in any criminal or court records, Tracy fears word would leak out nonetheless.

The amendment is not currently in the Senate version of the same bill. Conference committee members, among them Judiciary Chair Wes Skoglund (DFL-Mpls.) and Judiciary Finance Chair Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), will convene this week to hammer out a draft.

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