Man with HIV gets private court hearing using '88 law

Sunday, November 19, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A man charged with failing to tell sexual partners he was HIV-positive was granted more privacy recently when a judge closed a court proceeding to the public.

Citing a 1988 Missouri law, attorneys for 40-year-old Albert L. Spicer succeeded in barring two spectators and a reporter Tuesday from a hearing in which the defendant was scheduled to plead guilty to some of the charges.

The state law was intended to protect people who have tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS from suffering discrimination. The law makes police, prosecutors, courts and juries privy to a person's HIV status, but it does not mention the public's right to know.

In court Tuesday, Jackson County Circuit Judge Jay Daugherty delayed Spicer's hearing while he researched the request from Spicer's lawyers before deciding to close the proceedings.

"It was with reluctance that the court had to clear the courtroom in order to comply with the statute," Daugherty said. Before Tuesday, he said, the issue had never been raised by a defendant in his court.

Spicer was charged in October 2004 with two dozen felony counts of recklessly exposing five women in the Kansas City area to HIV by having unprotected sex with them despite knowing he had the virus.

Prosecutors said at the time that one of the women later developed full-blown AIDS.

What happened at Spicer's hearing Tuesday was unknown because of the judge's decision to bar the public. But Spicer was still in custody in Jackson County on Friday, and the charges against him were remained available for public observation on Missouri's court records Web site.

Kansas City lawyer Jean Maneke, who specializes in freedom of information issues, said she had not heard of a court hearing being closed under the HIV statute before now.

"When it's an issue of Missouri constitutional privilege versus a Missouri statute, I think the court might want to err on the side of the constitution," Maneke said.

A spokesman for the Missouri attorney general said that office has not issued an opinion on the issue.

Daugherty on Friday consulted with two of the Legislature's research attorneys. They found nothing in the statute that authorized closing a criminal hearing to the public.

Violators of the confidentiality law can be subject to civil lawsuits, although there is no criminal penalty.

Kansas has a similar privacy law, in which violators can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Such privacy laws specific to HIV or AIDS were designed to protect individuals from being discriminated against or stigmatized, said Paul Feldman, deputy director of the nonprofit Health Privacy Project in Washington.

He said the laws also were pushed by public health officials who wanted to encourage people to be more open about getting an HIV test.

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