EDMONTON - Last Friday afternoon, the Edmonton Police Service issued an urgent news bulletin. Officers were on the lookout for suspect accused of at least two cases of aggravated sexual assault.
Police released the suspect’s name and photograph to every media outlet, and posted it on the EPS website, imploring the public to call in with tips.
It was a 21st century, high-tech version of an Old West “Wanted” poster — with the whole community deputized, through the blanket media coverage, as members of the posse.
It worked. The fugitive was spotted by tipsters hitchhiking west out of town and later apprehended by RCMP in Edson.
So should we all breathe a sigh of relief? After all, an accused serial sexual assailant is now in custody.
But this case isn’t quite so simple.
The accused in this case is a slim 17-year-old girl, a minor, a child of the streets, who, according to police, lives without a fixed address in Old Strathcona.
She isn’t accused of forcing anyone to have sex against his will.
Instead, three unnamed men, whose identities are protected by the rape shield law, have complained to police that this girl had consensual sex with them without first disclosing the fact that she was allegedly HIV positive.
Normally, under the terms of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, police aren’t allowed to release the name or photograph of an accused under the age of 18.
In this instance, the police sought and were granted an order to identify this girl for the purpose of finding her and taking her into custody. The order allowed them to spread her photograph and her medical condition far and wide.
The teenager was arrested Saturday. But even after she was safely in custody, police continued to send out that damning private information to the press, despite the fact that the court order was only granted for the purposes of taking the minor into custody. Many media outlets, including this one, followed the police department’s lead, temporarily naming the girl and broadcasting her picture.
The Edmonton police department only removed the girl’s name and picture from its website Monday morning.
Too little, too late. In this Internet age, she will never have her privacy back. Her name and face are out there for anyone with Google to find.
The police won’t say how or why they believe the girl is HIV positive, nor will they release the court order they sought, granting permission to name her.
How did this teen come to be living on the streets? How did she come to be infected with HIV — if, indeed, she is? Where are her parents, her guardians? Is she a ward of the province? If not, should she have been? Is she a drug addict? Was she trading on sex to survive? Does she have a mental health condition, or any other kind of cognitive impairment, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which would diminish her capacity to make prudent, responsible sexual choices?
We don’t know the answers to any of those key questions.
If, as police allege, this teen does have a dangerous communicable disease, the Crown had a very legitimate reason to want to find her, and to find her previous sexual partners. But the Alberta government already has plenty of powers under the Public Health Act and the Child, Youth, and Family Enhancement Act to apprehend her, trace back her sexual contacts, and get them all appropriate care and counselling.
Treating her like a dangerous criminal on the lam, rather than a sick, desperate and vulnerable minor, may not have been the most useful or appropriate strategy to dealing with a public health problem. Criminalize the disease, and you only add to the stigma and shame that keep people from disclosing their HIV status in the first place.
“If your goal is to protect the public, you don’t jump right to putting up wanted posters,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in Toronto
“This isn’t a bank robber, running around with a gun. But when it comes to HIV, there’s an immediate panic that sets in. People think there are these HIV predators out there on the loose.”
Under Canadian criminal law, a person who is HIV positive has a duty to disclose his or her status before engaging in conduct that poses a “significant risk” of transmitting the virus. Any failure to disclose is treated as a form of fraud, which renders the other person’s consent to have sex invalid — and which turns otherwise consensual sex into an assault in the eyes of the law.
Elliott says Canadian courts have prosecuted approximately 130 people with HIV/AIDS for having sex without informing their partners of their health status, giving us one of the highest rates of such prosecutions in the world. But of those prosecutions, he says, only about a dozen of the accused have been women, and few, if any, have been minors.
Of course, we want everyone who tests positive for HIV, or any other sexually transmitted infection, to inform their partners before sex. No one should ever spread any venereal disease, be it HIV or syphilis or herpes, maliciously or recklessly. Having sex without telling your partner you’re infected is wrong. But that shouldn’t absolve the rest of us of taking responsibility for our own sexual choices.
There’s an old legal adage: “The risk to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed.” In this day and age, if you decide to have casual unprotected sex, you have to assume a certain degree of risk.
At least three men allegedly chose to have sex — unprotected sex, it would seem — with a 17-year-old homeless girl. Their sexual behaviour was also irresponsible, perhaps even exploitative. Yet they’re the victims whose identities are protected, while she is the accused criminal, pilloried in the virtual public square.
Sadly, it’s far easier for the police to launch a successful media manhunt for one sick girl, than it is for our community to deal with the social woes that put her on the street, diseased and desperate, in the first place.