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Nick Rhoades

Other Iowa Cases
In 2008, 33-year-old Nick Rhoades met 22-year-old Adam Plendl on a social networking site and they agreed to meet at Plendl’s home in Cedar Falls, Iowa where they had unprotected oral sex and protected anal sex.

Several days later, Plendl learned that Rhoades was HIV positive, although Rhoades’s online profile on the social networking site said he was HIV negative. Plendl went to a hospital to get antiretroviral medicine, and although the test was negative, a nurse was required to notify police because it was a sex crime.

Four months later, Rhoades was charged with violating Iowa’s criminal transmission of HIV statute. The statute did not require that transmission of the virus actually occur, only that a defendant be HIV positive, and have intimate contact that could result in the transmission of the virus, with a person who did not know the defendant was HIV positive. Rhoades pled guilty in Black Hawk County Circuit Court on May 1, 2009.

During his court appearance, Rhoades told the judge that he was positive for HIV, that he engaged in intimate sexual contact with Plendl, and that Plendl was not aware that Rhoades was HIV positive.

Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The harsh punishment produced a public outcry, and the judge agreed to consider a defense motion to reduce the sentence. In September 2009, the judge granted the motion and reduced the sentence to probation and Rhoades was released from prison.

In 2010, Rhoades, represented by new lawyers, challenged his guilty plea. His new lawyers contacted Rhoades’s physician, which his original lawyer had failed to do. The physician reported that Rhoades had been diagnosed with HIV in 1998 and began receiving medical treatment in 2005. By 2008, the physician reported, Rhoades’s viral load was “nondetectable.”

Rhoades’ new lawyers filed a motion to vacate his guilty plea because the record did not establish a sufficient basis in fact to enable the judge to conclude that Rhoades had violated Iowa’s criminal HIV transmission statute. The motion also argued that Rhoades’ first lawyer provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to learn that Rhoades’s HIV viral load was nondetectable, and that, as a result, transmission of HIV by Rhoades was extremely unlikely, if not absolutely impossible.

The motion was denied by the trial court and the denial was upheld by the Iowa Court of Appeals. In June 2014, however, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the decision.

According to the state supreme court, the judge who accepted Rhoades’s guilty plea took “judicial notice” of the proposition that any HIV positive person can transmit the virus by having unprotected sex with a person who is HIV negative. Taking judicial notice, however, is only permitted when a fact is not reasonably subject to dispute. While it may once have been undisputed that an HIV positive person could always transmit the virus through unprotected sexual contact, that has changed. The court noted that at the post-conviction hearing, Rhoades’s attorneys presented extensive evidence of “great strides in the treatment and prevention of the spread of HIV from 2003 to 2008.”

The court held that by 2008 it was no longer indisputable that there is always a risk that an HIV positive person may transmit HIV if he has unprotected sex. “At the time of the plea, Rhoades’s viral count was nondetectable, and there is a question of whether it was medically true a person with a nondetectable viral load could transmit HIV through contact with the (sex partner’s) blood,” the court said. In other words, the court held that by the time Rhoades pled guilty, the possibility of HIV transmission through sex by an HIV positive person could not simply be assumed, there had to be actual evidence to support the finding.

As a result, the court held that there was an insufficient basis in fact to justify a finding that Rhoades violated the statute by engaging in intimate contact that “could” result in transmission of the HIV virus. The court sent the case back to the trial court to give the prosecution an opportunity to present evidence on the issue, and ordered that if the prosecution did not meet that burden, Rhoades be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

On October 2, 2014, the Black Hawk County District Attorney’s Office informed the court that it would not attempt to provide a factual basis for the guilty plea. Rhoades was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and the prosecution dismissed the charge.
In May 2014, Iowa Governor Branstad signed into law a bill revising the HIV transmission statute to reflect recent advances in medicine.
Rhoades subsequently filed a malpractice lawsuit against his attorney which was pending in 2016. He also filed a lawsuit seeking compensation. That lawsuit was dismissed in the trial court. In April 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the decision, ruling that defendants who plead guilty are not entitled to compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/9/2014
Last Updated: 7/11/2016
County:Black Hawk
Most Serious Crime:Other Violent Felony
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2008
Sentence:25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No