Rhoades v. Iowa

No. 12-0180
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Rhoades was diagnosed with HIV in 1998 and began receiving treatment for the disease from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics every three to six months beginning in 2005. In 2008, Rhoades was informed that his viral load was non-detectible. Later that year, he met A.P. on a social networking cite that listed Rhoades as HIV negative. A.P. and Rhoades engaged in consensual unprotected oral and protected anal sex. Several days later, A.P. learned Rhoades was potentially HIV positive and the state charged Rhoades with criminal transmission of HIV in violation with state law.

The district court accepted Rhoades’ guilty plea and sentenced him to a 25-year prison sentence. Rhoades filed a motion to appeal and his prison sentence was changed to a five year probation period. Rhoades later filed an application for post conviction relief, which stated that the trial counsel was ineffective and should not have allowed him to plead guilty because (1) there was no factual basis for his guilty plea and (2) the counsel failed to conduct a complete investigation before Rhoades plead guilty. The trial court denied this application for post conviction relief, and denial was affirmed by the court of appeals.

The Supreme Court of Iowa held that Rhoades did not receive effective assistance from his counsel, prompting him to plead guilty to the crime of criminal transmission of HIV in violation of Iowa Code section 709C.1. The Court first established that the statutory requirement that the defendant had “intimate contact” with the victim required that the transmission of HIV be “possible” through such contact, and that “possible” should be interpreted to mean “having an indicated potential by nature or circumstances.” Such interpretation would require that expert medical testimony on the likelihood of transmission be presented before a conviction.

The Court found that there was no factual basis for Rhoades' guilty plea, and that he consequentially received ineffective assistance from his counsel. The Court did not factually establish that the defendant’s conduct fell within the definition of “intimate conduct” as established by state law, which stated that in order to have “intimate contact”­­, there must be an exposure of body fluid in a manner that could result in the transmission of HIV.

The Court noted that the investigation report was equally insufficient in establishing that the required exposure to bodily fluid was factually proven. Additionally, the Court found that it could not take judicial notice ”that an infected individual can transmit HIV when an infected person engages in protected anal sex with another person or unprotected oral sex, regardless of the infected person’s viral load.”  The Court noted that judicial notice should only be used when facts were not subject to reasonable dispute, which was not the case here. The Court found that counsel had breached an essential duty when he had permitted a defendant to plead guilty where there was no factual basis to support this plea. The Court therefore reversed the lower courts’ decisions and set aside the criminal conviction.

A dissenting opinion found that a factual basis existed to support the plea, and this factual basis negated the claim that counsel was ineffective.  The dissenting judge further highlighted that the underlying purpose of the statute was to encourage disclosure.

“…[T]he district court’s reference to intimate contact and Rhoades’s acknowledgement he had intimate contact does not establish the necessary factual basis an exchange of bodily fluid took place or that Rhoades intentionally exposed A.P. to his bodily fluid in a manner that could result in the transmission of HIV.” Page 13.

“Thus, the minutes of testimony do not establish a factual basis that an exchange of bodily fluid took place or that Rhoades intentionally exposed A.P. to his bodily fluid. Nor do the minutes of testimony show the likelihood the sexual activity in this case could result in the transmission of HIV.” Page 14.

“Today we are unable to take judicial notice that an infected individual can transmit HIV when an infected person engages in protected anal sex with another person or unprotected oral sex, regardless of the infected person’s viral load. The evidence at the postconviction relief hearing4 shows there have been great strides in the treatment and the prevention of the spread of HIV from 2003 to 2008. It was not apparent in 2009, at the time of the plea, that this fact was “capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy” could not reasonably be questioned.” Page 17.

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