HIV Positive Status to Potentially Factor into Sexual Assault Sentencing

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Crown prosecutors in Saskatchewan recently clarified that an HIV positive man facing charges for choking a woman unconscious and then sexually assaulting her will not be charged with aggravated sexual assault. However, the Crown has argued that the man’s HIV status and the victim’s subsequent fear of having potentially contracted the virus should be considered during sentencing.

What Happened?

The sexual assault occurred in May 2015. The victim was on her way home after socializing with friends at a pub. She was accompanied by a friend until she was about half block from her apartment. As she cut through a back alley, she was approached by the man in question, who rode his bike alongside her, started making inappropriate comments, and touching her. The man eventually tackled her, choked her unconscious, and forcibly penetrated her before she eventually escaped.

After the man was arrested, the victim learned that he was HIV-positive. She was treated with potent post-exposure antiretroviral drugs and experienced six months of anxiety while she awaited her test results (which were negative).

Aggravated Sexual Assault

The Crown initially charged the man with aggravated sexual assault due to his HIV-positive status. Originally, the risk of transmission to the victim was considered the aggravating factor in the assault, however, the Crown reconsidered its original charge after evidence from an infectious disease specialist revealed that the man had regularly been taking antiretroviral drugs which suppressed his virus to a low enough level that transmission was “nearly impossible”. The man’s HIV-positive status, therefore, did not endanger the woman’s life.

He was still convicted of aggravated sexual assault, but it was because he choked the victim, not because of his HIV-positive status.

Prosecutors asked for a minimum sentence of 12 years, arguing that the victim’s fear of contracting HIV had been real, even if the actual risk of doing so was not. They noted that:

However low the risk is, the anxiety for the victim when she found out that this individual was in fact HIV-positive, is an aggravating factor.

HIV Prosecutions in Canada

As we previously blogged about, the majority of HIV-related prosecutions in Canada involve consensual sexual relationships which eventually led to prosecution because an HIV-infected partner did not disclose his or her status.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified that individuals with low-level HIV who use condoms when they engage in sexual relations, cannot be charged with aggravated sexual assault for non-disclosure of their status.

Since then, HIV activists have argued that the SCC’s criteria are too stringent and that medical advances in reducing transmission risk have progressed to the point that it is not necessary for individuals to have both a low viral load and to wear a condom. Experts have said that adding a condom to the situation “negligibly changes the risk” because the risk of transmission is already basically zero.

In this case, experts praised the fact that prosecutors recognized the reduced transmission risk, despite the lack of condom use, to determine that a charge of aggravated sexual assault was not justified.

Perception of Risk as Aggravating Factor

Both the Crown and defence lawyers recognized that, in this case, the victim’s fear of transmission could be considered an aggravating factor. However, the Defence is asking for a five-year sentence. Sentencing was delayed by three weeks in order to provide the Judge time to review a Gladue Report (a special pre-sentencing hearing into an Indigenous perpetrator’s background).

The provincial and federal governments are both currently reviewing the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure. We will continue to follow the developments and will provide updates as they become available.

In the meantime, if you have questions about your rights, contact one of the knowledgeable and well-respected Oshawa criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. Our lawyers have experience successfully defending charges of aggravated assault and sexual assault. We will take the time to understand the particular circumstances of your case and work to achieve the best possible result.