In its latest editorial on AIDS {Aug. 31}, The Post denounced the "nasty mix of hysteria and vengefulness" in some of the national reaction to the AIDS crisis and then added to the frenzy by calling for laws to make the willful exposure of unknowing people to the AIDS virus a crime.

As with so many superficially logical responses to AIDS-related questions, the appeal of using criminal law vanishes when one examines the underlying realities.

First, there is no reason to believe that such a law would be an effective deterrent for stemming the spread of the virus believed to cause AIDS. There have long been state laws that criminalize the transmission of other diseases, such as syphilis. They are almost never enforced and are correctly regarded as useless for public health purposes.

Second, whatever impact such a law might have is likely to be negative. The surest way for an individual to avoid any risk of prosecution would be never to set foot in a doctor's office seeking to learn whether he or she was infected. If a person never learns that test result, he or she can never be prosecuted for knowingly exposing another to the infection. It is also extremely unlikely that an infected person would risk arrest and imprisonment to cooperate in a partner notification program. This would be all the more unfortunate since the risk of actual infection is believed greatly to increase with the number of sexual contacts. Thus one person's refusal to divulge a single act of sexual intercourse, because it could lead to prosecution, might prevent his or her partner, who still might be uninfected, from being notified of the risk.

In addition to these practical reasons, reliance on the criminal law entails the danger of wholesale civil liberties violations that those who propose these remedies seldom consider. An entire arsenal of criminal justice powers -- including grand jury investigations, search warrants and police surveillance -- would become available to the state for intrusions on intimate personal activities. Who would decide when, and against whom, these procedures would be invoked?

And, indeed, there is potential for many more, equally misdirected criminal laws. If possible sexual transmission is made a crime, then surely it should be a crime for an infected pregnant woman to deliver a child rather than have an abortion. The risk of her child's being infected is many times greater than the risk of infection from a single sexual act. Yet the Constitution would rightly forbid the state from forcing women to have abortions, just as it forbids forcing women to continue pregnancies.

The truth we must confront is that there are no shortcuts to preventing the spread of AIDS. Criminal law won't work and is dangerous to utilize. An intensive public health campaign is long overdue; if anything ought to be criminal, it is the refusal immediately to commit massive resources to that.

Nan D. Hunter

The writer is coordinator of the ACLU's AIDS Task Force.