Transmitting an STD: Criminal Laws & Penalties

Most states criminalize knowing transmission of an STD.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 5/26/2022

Sexually transmitted diseases, sometimes known as venereal diseases, are diseases that are transferred between people primarily as a result of sexual contact. Many, but not all, states have laws that criminalize the transmission of at least some types of STDs between people. These laws, and the penalties imposed by them, differ significantly among states.

Criminal Transmission of HIV and Other STDs

Criminal transmission of an STD commonly encompasses different types of diseases. Though state laws differ, they typically include HIV as well as other communicable or contagious sexually transmitted diseases. Some state laws list the individual diseases covered by name, while others use more general language that includes any type of communicable or sexually transmitted disease.

Can You Go to Jail for Giving Someone HIV or an STD?

You can be convicted of the criminal transmission of an STD only if you cause someone else to be infected intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly. For example, if you have been diagnosed with an STD and later engage in sexual relations with someone else without telling that person you have the disease, you can be convicted of this crime if that person becomes infected. However, if you are unknowingly infected with an STD, you cannot be found guilty of this crime.

In order to convict you, a prosecutor must be able to show that you knew you had the disease and you intentionally exposed someone else to danger. Alternately, a prosecutor can show that, while knowing you had the disease, you were indifferent to the risk of exposing someone else and engaged in contact that recklessly endangered the other person.

Informed Consent by the Partner

Many states have laws that allow for people with an STD to knowingly engage in sexual contact without fear of prosecution if they tell the other person about the presence of the disease. As long as the other person consents to the relationship, the person with the STD is not guilty of criminal transmission, even if the other person is eventually infected.

However, laws in other states do not allow for the informed consent exception, and it's possible to be convicted of criminal transmission of an STD in these states even when the other person knows of the presence of the disease and consents to the sexual contact. In practice, however, because prosecutors have discretion when choosing which cases to prosecute, they may choose not to bring charges in cases where adults knowingly consented to sexual relations.

Penalties for Transmitting HIV or an STD

If you are convicted of knowingly transmitting an STD, you face a number of criminal penalties. State laws categorize this crime as either a felony or misdemeanor offense, and the potential penalties differ significantly depending on the state where it occurs. Regardless of the state, all criminal sentences involve the same potential types of penalties.

A misdemeanor conviction for transmission of an STD can result in a sentence of up to one year in jail, while a felony conviction has a maximum penalty of a year or more in prison. Potential prison sentences for this crime differ significantly, and while some states impose a potential maximum sentence of up to one year in jail for the transmission of any STD, other states impose much harsher penalties. A judge can also order you to pay fines or restitution. Restitution goes to the victim to compensate them for harm caused by the crime.

Someone convicted of the criminal transmission of an STD may also be required to register as a sex offender. Sex offender registration requirements differ by state, but someone on the sex offender registration list can remain there for 25 years or longer. Registrants have a difficult if not impossible time obtaining housing and work—in many ways, registration is the worst possible sentence.

Can You Be Charged With Manslaughter or Attempted Murder for Spreading HIV?

It's possible (although rare) to be charged with attempted murder if you know that you have HIV yet still engage in unprotected sex without telling your partner. While laws vary from state to state, a person usually commits the crime of attempted murder by intentionally attempting to cause the death of another. People act intentionally when they act with a particular purpose or design. Under general principles of criminal law, any substantial step towards a crime can be an attempt.

In order to convict a person of attempted murder for failing to tell a sex partner about an HIV infection, the prosecutor must show that the defendant knew they were HIV-positive, knew HIV could be spread through unprotected sex, engaged in unprotected sex, and intended to infect someone and ultimately cause their death.

Attempted manslaughter charges might be possible, depending on how the law is written. Manslaughter doesn't involve intent to kill someone, rather it's based on criminally reckless conduct. Given that HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be for infected individuals, it would be difficult for a prosecutor to prove someone's reckless conduct creates an unreasonable risk of death or great bodily harm.

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