Kristopher Wentworth was having a really bad day. He was in court and things didn’t look good. He’d robbed a variety store — and stolen a few pills from a girlfriend. Wentworth lost his temper in the courtroom — and that’s when his situation went from bad to drastically worse. When the deputies tried to handcuff him, he spat at one, right in the face.
Now the New Brunswick man faces the severe additional charge of aggravated assault — just because he happens to have hepatitis C (HCV). There is no medically documented case of passing that virus from spitting — and in the context of increasing criminalization of sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and blood-borne diseases, this recent case represents a chilling first for Canada.
Wentworth pleaded guilty on April 9, according to the Saint John Telegraph-Journal. An aggravated assault conviction can get you up to 14 years behind bars.
To qualify as aggravated assault, an attacker must “wound, maim, disfigure or endanger the life” of another person. Being spat upon is an indignity, but is it actually life-threatening? Not really, says Dr Mel Krajden, medical director of hepatitis services at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). “The overall risk of HCV transmission from spitting is likely very low.”
Is there any possibility of infection? Only in rare circumstances. Open wounds on the spat-upon face combined with blood-laced saliva might increase the risk, says Krajden. “Most HCV infections relate to blood-to-blood contact.”
But even when the virus is transmitted, many people clear it on their own with no ill effects, and for others there are treatments with a high success rate, according to a BCCDC factsheet.
Krajden adds that even most sexual contact is deemed unlikely to pass the virus on. In fact, in 2002 a New Brunswick court acquitted a man with hep C of aggravated assault charges after he allegedly opted not to disclose his medical information to two male sex partners.
There have in fact been a number of criminal charges laid for spitting in Canada — but until now they have related to HIV rather than hep C, according to Cécile Kazatchkine, policy analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “I believe… this is the first case in Canada involving the laying of charges for risk of exposure to HCV as a result of spitting,” she says.
Since 2001, the Legal Network has documented at least a half-dozen spitting assault cases related to HIV. What do they have in common? The majority involved a prisoner and/or a police officer. “The fact the accused is a prisoner is most certainly why this charge was so severe,” says Claudia Medina, federal hep C coordinator with the Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN). “I believe there are power imbalances that come into play.”
“Would we even be hearing about this issue if someone in the general community who was HCV-positive spat on someone?” asks Medina. Meanwhile, some of the most affected communities include drug users and prisoners, who have no access to clean syringes behind bars to prevent blood-borne transmission from needle sharing. A report released last month by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) indicated the hep C infection rate in prison is 39 times greater than the population at large.
The ineffective response to hep C “sends the message that this community is not important,” Medina says.
This message is magnified by the rising tide of cases criminalizing people because of their bodily fluids — all people with medical conditions such as HIV, HCV, and herpes are dehumanized. They are treated like dangerous objects to be contained and controlled — regardless of whether the risks are real or imaginary.
“Education is so important for the criminal-justice system,” says PASAN’s Medina. Indeed — or else justice and fairness will remain much further than spitting distance away.