Posts Tagged ‘criminal’

Misguided zeal in prosecution of HIV-positive woman

Monday, July 15th, 2013

The Star

A case unfolding in a Barrie courtroom brings home just what mischief can arise from bad, vague criminal laws poorly interpreted by ill-informed police and overzealous prosecutors in a climate of misinformation about HIV.

It also highlights why Ontario Attorney-General John Gerretsen needs to work with scientific experts, community organizations and people living with HIV to prevent unjust convictions and avoid further undermining HIV prevention and treatment efforts — neither of which outcomes are in the public interest.

The allegations have yet to be proved in court and every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But even assuming that the claims underlying the charges laid are proven in their entirety, several things are worth noting.

There is no allegation that she was maliciously trying to transmit HIV.

All of the “victims” were casual acquaintances — adult men who were willing, active participants in initiating the hookups.

The encounters were brief — a matter of a minute in one instance.

None of the men contracted HIV. This is not surprising, given the tiny risk of infection based on the alleged facts.

And get this: one of the counts against the accused woman rests solely on an allegation that she received oral sex “for a short period” — an act that poses extremely low risk, indeed close to zero risk, of transmitting HIV.

Most scientific studies have failed to identify cases of transmission through oral sex, although it’s difficult to find study subjects who have exclusively oral sex. Researchers now say the risk of transmission is so low it’s difficult to quantify. Practicing oral sex is a safer sex technique.

Yet this woman sits in jail facing the possibility of conviction for aggravated sexual assault, one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code. If convicted, she faces possibly years in prison and a mandatory lifetime designation as sex offender.

How did we get to this sorry state of affairs?

Last fall, the Supreme Court of Canada released a pair of decisions that were criticized by HIV groups for authorizing an unjustly wide scope for criminal prosecution — at odds with the evolving scientific evidence about HIV, with most of the lower court decisions to date, and even with the direction previously suggested by the Supreme Court itself.

For instance, a person living with HIV can now be criminally prosecuted and sent to jail even if she or he took highly effective precautions to protect their partner by using a condom, had no intention to harm anyone and did not transmit HIV.

The decisions of the Supreme Court were also criticized for leaving unanswered questions about which sexual act might trigger prosecutions, including possible prosecution for oral sex. This leaves the door wide open for ignorance and prejudice to drive criminal prosecutions, as sadly illustrated by the case in Barrie.

In this case, we also have an additional factor: the accused woman had an undetectable “viral load,” which refers to the amount of the virus in a person’s bodily fluids. Science has conclusively established that the fewer copies of the virus, the less chance of transmission. When a person is under treatment and has an undetectable viral load, the risk of transmission through unprotected vaginal sex approaches zero.

So, on the one hand we have a risk that ranges from zero to extremely small, and on the other hand we have a woman facing conviction for aggravated sexual assault.

It’s out of all proportion and profoundly unjust.

Criminal prosecutions should be driven by reason, by evidence and by what’s in the public interest — not by irrational fear and prejudice that leads to people with HIV, even those who practise safer sex, being treated the same as violent rapists.

There is a better way than testing the limits of the law on the backs of people living with HIV through lengthy criminal proceedings, including months of pretrial detention and sensationalized and stigmatizing media coverage.

Police forces need to receive adequate training about HIV. This could help some of these charges from being laid in the first place.

And as the experience in other jurisdictions has shown, guidelines for Crown prosecutors can help prevent the misuse of the criminal law if developed in accordance with the current scientific understanding of HIV and international recommendations. Ontario’s attorney general needs to develop such guidelines, but with the meaningful participation of community organizations and scientific experts.

Investigation: The Steve Biron case in Quebec City

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Steve Biron : Imprisoned in Quebec for having sex without a condom…

The importance of using the right words…

By Roger-Luc Chayer

[email protected]

The worst sex scandal to strike within the walls of Quebec City since OPERATION SCORPION targeted juvenile prostitution has grabbed the world’s attention by targeting a gay man for supposedly reckless acts.

The facts are simple: Steve Biron, currently imprisoned in Quebec City, is accused of cruising the internet in order to have unprotected sex with gay men, despite knowing he had contracted HIV.

The simple premise and the questions raised by the case very clear: What is a “safe” sexual act, what is a “clean” person and, above all, what is “barebacking”, because the whole case rests on these “fads” in the gay community in general.

Before Gay Globe’s investigation went to press, the court issued a publication ban, so we are unable to name the so-called “victims”, however their identity is unimportant since their conduct in this affair is the object of a lawsuit.

Within the Quebec gay community, the terms are important, since they are used on specialized websites such as Gay411 or Priape to arrange encounters. Members of these websites routinely use these terms, which are defined as:

SAFE: This word refers to the degree of safety of the sex act. It may involve the use of condoms but is usually used in terms of conduct. “Safe” sex can mean contact without exchange of fluid, massages, kisses, caresses, sex without penetration or using items like dildos or gels. The range of “safe” relationships is broad and cannot be limited or oversimplified as the use of a condom. It would be equally wrong to suggest that “safe” sex precludes HIV. A person with HIV can indeed have “safe” sex.

CLEAN: In addition to the term “safe”, the word “clean” is used to refer directly to a medical condition. It often means the absence of HIV and HIV-negative status but it is also applies to all sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia, syphilis, herpes or hepatitis and other diseases that can be transmitted by physical contact.

To some people, “clean” can also mean that they test positive but have an undetectable viral load. Indeed, for several years it has been known that triple therapy, when followed regularly, can reduce the HIV viral load to the point of becoming undetectable in blood making it more difficult to transmit the virus, since it there are not enough present to constitute a serious risk. Since 2010, UNAIDS has favored triple therapy over condoms as the best way to prevent HIV infection, and Canada subscribes to the position of this United Nations agency.

An assertion by a person with HIV whose viral load is undetectable following triple therapy treatment and calls himself “clean” is now supported by science. Using the same logic, some HIV-positive people refer to themselves as HIV-negative when they know it is undetectable. One may disagree with this opinion but, logically, the lack of evidence meets the criterion for an HIV-negative finding.

BAREBACKING: This practice is not entirely new, having emerged around 1996 in the gay community, mainly among HIV-positive people who refuse to use condoms. The consensus among community groups and Quebec Ministry of Health of Quebec specialists is that practitioners consciously lust for the thrill of risking unprotected sex in order to achieve an adrenaline-driven orgasm. Like playing Russian roulette, barebacking is synonymous with a conscious desire to flirt with death. Some depressed people who see no hope for the future practice barebacking, claiming that they won’t live long enough for an HIV infection to affect them. Barebacking is also sometimes considered a mental illness. All people seeking to bareback know that they are dallying with HIV — and death.

Police brutality and prejudice go hand in hand!

By Roger-Luc Chayer

[email protected]

When everything goes wrong, nothing works any more…”. That summarizes the handling of a very unique Quebec trial which has led to the imprisonment of a gay man, Steve Biron, for allegedly having unprotected sex despite knowing that he had HIV.

According to testimony by the officer in charge of the investigation during a Dec. 22 hearing at the Quebec City courthouse, it all started when Biron’s alleged victims filed complaints. Quebec City Police Detective Sergeant Louis Lachance looked quite awkward when, at the request of Crown prosecutor Rachel Gagnon, he tried to summarize the case to Judge Chantal Pelletier during a bail hearing.

Det.-Sgt. Lachance tried to explain the difference between the words “safe”, “clean” and “barebacking”, mixing up the definitions to the point that he acknowledged that he didn’t have the entire file at his fingertips with which to make the distinctions.

He also depicted Gay411 as a dating site reserved for “homosexuals” that offers nothing but anal sex, top or bottom. However it’s well-known, as a visit to the site confirmed, that Gay411 is a dating site for men (be they gay, bisexual or heterosexuals seeking alternative adventures), that, besides offering sexual services, provides many other services like friendship, chat-rooms or love. It is quite misleading to suggest that the site is only for tops or bottoms, as these practices are not common to all gays.

The officer’s testimony ended up being an embarrassing expression of prejudice against gay lifestyle, rather than the precise description of a gay dating site that one would expect during a criminal court hearing. The officer also confused the meaning of the words “safe” and “clean “, saying that safe means HIV-negative and that clean means the same thing, although this is untrue. Steve Biron’s lawyer, Herman Bédard, appeared to decide, to the surprise of all including his client—not to file his evidence and let the judge make a decision that seems not to be fully informed.

For example, during preparatory meetings with his client, members of his family and partner as well as with the author of this article, the lawyer stated that he was prepared to submit the findings of Gay Globe Media’s investigation, which demonstrated that some of the alleged victims were not as clean and innocent as they had claimed in their written statements to police.

The lawyer ought to have enabled judge Pelletier to consider medical advances such as triple therapy and undetectable viral load, which he ultimately failed to do, despite all the findings and documents in his possession. All this led to a ruling that has kept Steve Biron behind bars, awaiting further proceedings that include a preliminary hearing slated for January 31, 2011. Can justice be served when incompetence runs rampant at a criminal trial?

Manitoba Court of Appeal opts to release HIV victim undergoing triple therapy…

By Roger-Luc Chayer

[email protected]

In the case of the Crown vs. Mabior, the Manitoba Court of Appeal, the province’s highest court (just below the Supreme Court of Canada) issued a ruling which is not binding elsewhere in Canada, one which Judge Chantal Pelletier—who is hearing the Steve Biron case—chose to ignore. In its ruling, the court said that for a person to be convicted of sexual assault or serious aggression for not having disclosing his HIV status, the risk of HIV transmission must be significant. Based on the facts and the medical evidence presented in this case, the Court of Appeal held that if a condom is used carefully or if the accused’s viral load is undetectable, then the act does not involve significant risk of HIV transmission. Therefore, there is no requirement to disclose HIV-positive status in these circumstances.

True or trumped-up victims? That is the question…

By Roger-Luc Chayer

[email protected]

We could not set about publishing a full investigation into the Steve Biron case without looking into the activities of some victims who claim to be pure and chaste, according to their statements filed in court.

Since most of the victims said that they used the services of the Gay411 site to meet Steve Biron and since GayGlobe Media has an account there, it was very easy to locate victims under the guise of strict anonymity, long after their statements to the Quebec City Police Department led to the arrest of Steve Biron.

A common thread emerged, which can be easily summarized: Nearly all the victims told police that they weren’t seeking barebacking, that this unprotected sex was agreed to under false pretenses by Biron, that they were concerned about the possible transmission of HIV, that Biron at first assured them that he was not positive and that they had never before been involved in barebacking. It’s also worth noting that, for the moment, all the victims say that they remain HIV negative and that all tests confirm that since Biron’s arrest no one has been infected, supporting the thesis that a person with HIV who is being treated and whose HIV is undetectable cannot transmit the disease.

Gay Globe’s investigation leaves no doubt as to the fact that some of the “victims” appear to lie in their statements to police. First, a Gay Globe staff member who posed as a Gay411 member looking for unprotected sex attempted to communicate with some victims whose account was still open and working. It was not difficult to establish links with at least five of Steve Biron’s alleged victims. The web identity of the victims—in other words, their user name—was clearly stated in their complaints and their account of events to police.

Disturbingly, not only were the victims who said that they had been traumatized and were undergoing post-exposure preventive treatment still very active on the Gay411 site, three of them responded positively to our requests for “bareback”-type sex without asking a single question about our HIV status or our health and even agreed to meet us at a well-known Quebec City hotel. Essentially, people who claim to be victims of a barebacker who had lied about his HIV status were very actively trying to engage in bareback acts without a moment’s worry about HIV, completely contradicting their criminal complaints. In addition, since these victims know they are potentially HIV-infected—as they claim in their complaints—by witholding that information from our representative during their investigation into bareback sex, they committed themselves to the very acts that they complained Steve Biron had committed, showing how little importance they attach to the threat.

The identity of these individuals is known and will be unveiled to the Court, as counsel for Steve Biron has told Gay Globe that a subpoena has been served requiring us to disclose this information, which we will not object to since the freedom of an individual is at stake.

To conclude, Steve Biron, accused of knowingly conveying HIV, faces a prison sentence of up to 14 years. The issues at hand are simple: Had Biron truly intended to transmit the disease, why is he undergoing triple therapy whose only purpose is to reduce the viral load? Did Steve Biron really intend to commit a criminal act? There is a reasonable doubt in this case and, faced with that doubt, acquittal is the only possibility. That’s the way the law works in this country in which we live.

What are the risks of making false accusations?

By Roger-Luc Chayer

[email protected]

Any person who makes a false charge against another could face serious legal consequences. For example, police might charge the accuser with mischief, a crime that could lead to a fine or a prison term. A person who perjures himself in court would face similar consequences.

Finally, those who make false complaints to the police could face civil suits and potentially a judgment obliging them to pay significant damages. Food for thought…