Corey Rangel speaks with a reporter as his supporters protest the discrimination. Photo: Brad Gorman.

HIV Bias, Discrimination Alleged in Cass County

BY TODD HEYWOOD

Police in Dowagiac, Michigan say they were just investigating a "possible crime," but advocates call it a "witch hunt" and a "fishing expedition." The crime cops say they were investigating whether or not 29-year-old Corey Rangel failed to disclose his HIV-positive status to his sexual partners.

Steven Grinnewald, director of Dowagiac's Public Safety Department, said his department was contacted on March 18 by officials from the probation program that Rangel was enrolled in asking them to conduct an investigation as to whether Rangel had disclosed his HIV status or not. The basis for the investigation? Sexually explicit photos and texts of Rangel and his partners.

"It's the possibility of a crime we were looking into," said Grinnewald. "It could have been a crime. We have investigated and we found nothing criminal happened. The criminal case has been closed."

Rangel said he willing handed probation officials his cell phone and passwords when they asked for them.

"I had nothing to hide," he said in a phone interview. He was asked to turn over the phone to probation officials after being cited during a traffic stop for no proof of insurance and failing to wear corrective lenses.

That led to a probation violation and Rangel landed in the Cass County jail.

While lodged in jail awaiting arraignment on the probation violation, a Dowagiac police officer visited.

"He asked me whether or not I was disclosing to my sex partners," Rangel said. "I told him I was. And he said he was going to contact them and ask them -- to see if our stories matched up."

That's when things went awry. Rangel said Dowagiac Police Officer Andrew Hafler called contacts on his phone and discussed his sexual relations with them and whether or not Rangel had disclosed his HIV status.

He alleges the investigation resulted in a disclosure of his HIV status in violation of Michigan law.

But Grinnewald rejects that allegation.

"We took every precaution to not disclose an HIV status," Grinnewald said in a phone interview.

Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney at ACLU Michigan, sent a letter to law enforcement and court officials in Cass County over the case.

"The fact that Mr. Rangel is HIV positive does not give your office, nor the Dowagiac Police Department the legal authority to share that information with his cell phone contacts, regardless of whether you believe he has been involved sexually with anyone," Kaplan wrote to the circuit court, Dowagiac Police and probation officials March 30. "The fact that a person is HIV positive does not create a presumption that they are not informing their sexual partners of their status or putting other people at risk for HIV transmission."

Grinnewald said he and his department were aware of the Michigan law making it a criminal misdemeanor to disclose someone's HIV testing information, except under limited situations. He said he was unaware of another part of the Michigan Public Health Code which empowers public health officials to investigate what is called a "Health Threat to Others." That law gives public health officials broad police powers under civil law that can result in investigations and civil confinement for persons with infectious or contagious diseases.

The knowledge about Michigan's confidentiality misdemeanor law may not have prevented it from being violated by Dowagiac police, said Kaplan.

"It doesn't sound like they followed the law," Kaplan said Monday evening in a phone interview.

Rangel is garnering support from advocates for those living with HIV, both in the state and nationally.

"It is terrifying for people living with HIV involved in the judicial system to be living under the HIV disclosure law," said Kelly Doyle, Manager of the Coalition for HIV Health and Safety. That group is spearheading efforts to update Michigan's HIV-specific criminal law. "As shown in Corey's case, the judicial system went on a fishing expedition to find a plaintiff to accuse of non-disclosure with no real evidence and no one accusing him of the crime. The HIV stigma and bias that Corey is dealing from the judicial system in Cass County is a witch hunt and clearly criminalizes those people living with HIV."

Sean Strub, executive director of Sero Project -- a national organization working to repeal and modernize HIV-specific criminal laws -- also condemned the situation.

"There is, unfortunately, too often an assumption of guilt when the accused is someone with HIV," he said in a text message to BTL. "PLHIV are viewed by some -- often treated by the criminal justice and public health systems -- as an inherently dangerous population."

He said because of this bias, and HIV specific laws, people living with HIV are "just one accusation -- or one biased, ignorant or hateful cop or prosecutor -- from finding themselves in a courtroom, their future thrown into the abyss of a justice system that increasingly fails PLHIV."

That matches the findings of Trevor Hoppe, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Albany, SUNY. Hoppe conducted his doctoral thesis work on Michigan's laws related to HIV, and in one study he produced, he found health officials carried bias related to how and whether people with HIV should have sex.

"In my research, I have often found that people have trouble understanding why anyone would have sex with someone who is HIV-positive -- and are often quick to assume that any evidence of a sex life is evidence that an HIV-positive person isn't disclosing their status," he said via Facebook messenger. "I even found that some health officials in Michigan had that attitude, presuming guilt when they did not have the full story."

His research has also shed light on bias among law enforcement and the courts.

"I have seen countless cases in which HIV-positive clients are treated with contempt and prejudice under the law," he wrote. "Judges and prosecutors are often woefully uninformed about HIV, which would not be so upsetting except that they are routinely incarcerating HIV-positive people based on their outdated and prejudicial attitudes."

Rangel will be back in court in the weeks to come, facing down allegations he violated his probation. In the meantime, he said he feels "betrayed" by those he thought were there to help him.


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