US Justice Department sues over Tennessee law targeting HIV-positive people convicted of sex work

The U.S. Justice Department sued Tennessee for its decades-old criminal prostitution laws, claiming that they illegally apply harsher penalties to people with HIV.

The U.S. Justice Department sued Tennessee on Thursday over its decades-old criminal prostitution laws, arguing it unfairly penalized people with HIV.

The suit, filed in western Tennessee in December, was a result of an investigation by the Justice Department, which warned that the law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. This case is being brought to court independently of another federal lawsuit that was filed by civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocates in October over the aggravated Prostitution Law.

Tennessee is the only US state that requires a person to register as a violent sex offenders for life if they are convicted of engaging sex with HIV. This applies regardless of whether or not the person was aware of the possibility of transmitting the disease.

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State lawmakers are on the verge of approving an amendment to the law, which would not completely repeal it. The Republican-sponsored legislation would remove only the requirement for those convicted of violent sex crimes to register as violent sex offenders.

In a press release issued Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division stated that people living with HIV shouldn’t be subjected a different justice system based on outdated scientific assumptions and misguided beliefs. This lawsuit is a reflection of the Justice Department’s determination to ensure that people with HIV aren’t targeted due to their disability.

Tennessee has criminalized prostitution as a misdemeanor for many years. In 1991, Tennessee lawmakers passed a more severe statute that only applied to sexworkers with HIV. Nearly 20 year later, the Tennessee state legislature revised this law by requiring a lifetime registration of sex offenders for those who were convicted under that controversial statute.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned in the years that HIV-related laws, many of which were enacted during the peak of the AIDS crisis, are outdated and unproductive. These laws have disproportionately affected Black and Latino populations, even though the same standards don’t apply to other infectious disease.

Some states have been taking steps to repeal their HIV-specific criminal law, like Illinois which repealed its entire HIV-specific criminal law in 2021. New Jersey and Virginia also repealed their HIV-specific felony laws in the same year.

The lawsuit aims to force the state to not only stop enforcing this law but also remove those who have been convicted of violating it from the sex-offender registry, and expunge the convictions.

The office of the state attorney general said that it was aware of the complaint, and would review it.

The Americans for Disabilities Act considers HIV and AIDS disabilities because they significantly hinder daily life. The landmark federal law of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everything from employment, parking and voting.

In court documents filed in another federal lawsuit, it is stated that over 80 people have been registered in Tennessee for aggravated prostitutes. Shelby County encompasses Memphis and the majority of these convictions took place there.

The Justice Department lawsuit describes the experiences of an unnamed Black, transgender woman in Memphis. She learned that she was HIV positive in 2008, but was arrested for prostitution in 2010 near a school or church. In 2012, she pleaded guilty to one count criminal attempt at aggravated prostitute. The woman was forced to register as an offender and struggled to find housing that met the sex-registry’s requirements.

The lawsuit also states that she has had trouble finding work after employers ran her background check. She can’t even spend time with her nephew alone because of her conviction.

She was also arrested and pleaded guilty for violating the requirement to update an address change within 48-hours after being displaced from her home by a weekend fire. The lawsuit also states that Tennessee law prohibits her from changing her name to reflect her gender identity.