A bill to increase the penalties for spitting on a law enforcement officer drew bipartisan support in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week and has now moved to the state Senate judiciary committee where it awaits a hearing.
Democrats in the lower chamber were split over details of House Bill 103, while Republicans united around the legislation. It passed with a veto-proof 146-56 vote, provided the final version does not lose support.
HB 103 would make “throwing, tossing, spitting or expelling” bodily fluids at a law enforcement officer a misdemeanor. But that charge increases to a third-degree felony if the person knew they were infected by a “communicable disease, including, but not limited to, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or hepatitis B.”
Identifying exact diseases was part of the reason Rep. Joe Webster (D – Montgomery) voted no, according to his chief of staff, Amy Smith.
“While Rep. Webster agrees that no one should be permitted to spit on a police officer, he does recognize that there are current criminal charges that can be levied against direct personal attacks through spitting or throwing bodily fluids on or at an officer,” Smith told Broad + Liberty. “A person can be charged with disorderly conduct, assault, or aggravated assault, depending on the severity of the incident. This bill’s creation is unnecessary, because the laws currently in place allow for charges to be filed in these instances.
There are current criminal charges that can be levied against direct personal attacks through spitting or throwing bodily fluids on or at an officer. This bill’s creation is unnecessary, because the laws currently in place allow for charges to be filed in these instances.
Smith went on to say the bill goes too far by creating mandatory minimum charges.
“His concern is HB 103’s creation of mandatory charges and enhanced sentencing, which establish ways to put more people in jail for longer sentences. There is also the question of science in relation to HIV-positive persons. The bill language suggests criminal intent in ways that an HIV-positive person cannot physically perform. HIV and AIDS viruses are not transmittable by saliva.”
Webster was one of 17 house Democrats in Philadelphia’s suburban collar counties that voted no, with 13 voting yes. Philly Democrats almost unanimously opposed the bill, with the exception of Northeast Philly Democrats Kevin Boyle, Ed Nielson and Mike Driscoll.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Lou Schmidt, a Blair County Republican.
“The language of Schmitt’s bill is a carbon copy of a Pennsylvania law from the 1990s that makes it a felony for inmates to spit on another person if they are known to have a communicable disease,” according to a Spotlight PA report.
There is also the question of science in relation to HIV-positive persons. The bill language suggests criminal intent in ways that an HIV-positive person cannot physically perform. HIV and AIDS viruses are not transmittable by saliva
Schmidt told Spotlight that the language from the 1990’s bill was likely outdated.
“I’ve already agreed that the reference to HIV … should be removed,” he said. “It not only stigmatizes HIV, it criminalizes it.”
Rep. Dianne Herrin (D – Chester) joined 12 other local house Democrats to vote in favor, but told Broad + Liberty, “this bill is definitely not perfect.” She asked that her full remarks be presented in full.
I voted in support of this legislation because, as the recent Mayor of West Chester, I have unique experience working with good police officers, and I understand the risks they face. I saw our officers deal on a regular basis with people who were often under the influence and who resisted arrest while turning violent and abusive. Spitting was, unfortunately, a common occurrence, and it was also not uncommon for our officers to come into contact with other bodily fluids such as those enumerated in this legislation. I saw them have to clean themselves up and place spit hoods on uncontrolled arrestees. In these cases, I would want to protect myself, too. I think anyone would.
I did find the arguments made by some of my Democratic colleagues persuasive; in particular, I fully understand the concerns over the language of the bill calling out HIV transmission and viral hepatitis. As a member of the LGBTQ+ Caucus, I also understand this gives the appearance of discriminatory intent. Although definitely rare, HIV can be transmitted through blood (which can be present in the mouth and saliva if there is a wound or other condition causing bleeding in the mouth).
It is currently a second-degree felony if a person in a detention facility or any correctional institution knowingly causes another to come into contact with blood, seminal fluid, saliva, urine or feces. This new legislation makes it a third-degree felony (a lesser offense) if any person intentionally or knowingly causes a law enforcement officer to come into contact with any of these fluids. The words “knowingly” and “intentionally” are key to the burden of proof in these cases and was a component of the bill that swayed me.
That said, this bill is definitely not perfect. I have therefore asked several of my Senate colleagues to work to ensure the Senate version of the bill will define “communicable disease” so more innocuous conditions like the common cold will be stricken from any final legislation. Additionally, all indicators from both the House and Senate point to agreement that the references to HIV and viral hepatitis will be eliminated. Other changes are being debated, too.
The making of legislation is not a linear process, and we often go back and forth between the House and Senate with amended bills like a game of ping-pong. Through this process, we can work through issues and come to agreement one way or the other – and hopefully, in the end, produce legislation worthy of being signed into law.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.
Editor’s note: an original version of this article noted the 17-13 split among suburban collar county Democrats on the bill, without including vote counts from Philadelphia County state representatives.