Lawmakers recommend lessening HIV criminal penalties

But they couldn’t find consensus on a police buffer-zone proposal

By: - October 5, 2022 7:00 am

An interim study committee couldn’t agree on police buffer zones. (Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

A group of lawmakers on Tuesday recommended that the Indiana General Assembly develop legislation lessening criminal penalties specific to the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, as well as to help psychiatric patients ready for release.

But they left unresolved a half-dozen issues considered earlier, including proposed no-civilian police buffer zones.

The thirteen lawmakers on the bipartisan Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code agreed to recommend punishment center on criminal intent to cause harm via the transmission of HIV, proof an individual engaged in conduct carrying a significant risk of causing harm and proof the conduct resulted in harm.

Punishment, they agreed, should be proportional to the harm — and should include no HIV-only felonies.

Testimony at earlier meetings showed the harm is minimal in many cases, and HIV is no longer a terminal disease and shouldn’t be singled out.

Lawmakers also agreed to recommend legislation ensuring “appropriate care upon release” for psychiatric patients, said Committee Chair Wendy McNamara. That included, she said, providing “continual support to the Department of Corrections as they … mak[e] sure the release-ready patients have a place and an organization to go to.”

Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville. (Courtesy Indiana House Republicans)

Left to an uncertain future, however, was an array of potential legislation. McNamara read aloud a list that included laws on guns, school safety and juvenile threats, pretrial detention, transitional health care, a jail data system, a 25-foot no-civilian buffer zone around police officers conducting arrests and a juvenile-adult court loophole.

Back away

Committee members earlier on Tuesday heard testimony and engaged in detailed discussion on the buffer zone concept, which law enforcement officers called a “standoff distance” and “reactionary gap.”

Evansville Police Department Officer Mark Saltzman said that in the 1.5 seconds it takes an officer to “respond to a threat,” a person can move 21 to 25 feet. A perimeter around officers making arrests or carrying out investigations could protect officers from physical attacks and harassment, and dissuade onlookers from interfering and thereby “reduce negative encounters,” he said.

But lawmakers were doubtful about how the bubble would work on the ground.

Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, asked how police officers and onlookers could prove the correct distance in the heat of the moment.

So did Sen. Timothy Lanane, D-Anderson, who said, “I get the theoretical, but I think a lot of times the folks that you’re talking about are emotionally charged and the theory all goes out the window. I’m not sure … it’s going to stop people anyway.”

Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, indicated he didn’t think video taken from 25 feet away would hold up in court. Saltzman argued the measure wouldn’t violate First Amendment rights protections.

“You can zoom [smartphones] right in. And from me to you, or in fact, from me to the back of the room, it’s going to look like you’re right on top of me,” Saltzman said. “… If you went strictly off what your ability to record is with your phone, there’s no reason we couldn’t push that out to 100 feet.”

He did agree, however, on exceptions for vehicle passengers and bystanders in small, enclosed spaces like private homes.

Zach Stock of the Indiana Public Defender Council said the agency believes the measure would be unconstitutional, and that Indiana already has “less intrusive” laws police officers can use, like resisting law enforcement, disorderly conduct, refusing request to leave emergency incident areas, obstruction to traffic and refusing to assist an officer.

McNamara said protecting police officers was “very important” to her, but didn’t put the issue up for a vote.

“Based on all the questions today about the proximity to police investigations, I don’t know that we’ll have a consensus on that,” she said.


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie joins the Indiana Capital Chronicle after covering city government and urban affairs for the Indianapolis Business Journal for more than a year. She graduated from Northwestern University in March 2021, and has reported for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and student publications in Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.