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


NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department sued the state on Thursday tennessee Overturning its decades-old felony prostitution law, arguing that it imposes harsh criminal penalties on people who are HIV-positive illegally.

Tennessee is the only state in the United States that enforces lifetime registration as a “violent sex offender” if convicted of engaging in sex work while living with HIV, even if the person knows they are transmitting the disease. can do.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are close to approving a change to the law that would not impact it entirely. The legislation introduced by Republicans would simply remove the requirement that people convicted of aggravated prostitution have to register as violent sex offenders.

“People living with HIV should not be subjected to a different system of justice based on outdated science and misconceptions,” Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit Thursday. Needed.” “This lawsuit reflects the Department of Justice’s commitment to ensuring that people living with HIV are not targeted because of their disability.”

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Prostitution has long been criminalized as a misdemeanor in Tennessee. But in 1991, Tennessee lawmakers enacted an even stricter law that applied only to sex workers living with HIV. Nearly 20 years later, the state legislature amended the law once again by requiring lifetime sex offender registration for those convicted under the controversial statute.

In the years since, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that laws criminalizing HIV exposure – many of which were enacted amid the peak of the AIDS epidemic – are outdated and ineffective. Black and Latino communities have been particularly impacted by these laws, while the same standards are not applied to other infectious diseases.

Over the past few years, some states have taken steps to repeal their HIV criminal laws, such as Illinois, which repealed all of its HIV-specific criminal laws in 2021. That same year, New Jersey and Virginia Repealed all of their draconian HIV-specific laws.

The lawsuit demands the state not only to stop enforcing the law, but also to remove people convicted under the law from the sex offender registry and vacate their sentences.

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

HIV and AIDS are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they significantly impair life activities. The landmark 1990 federal law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities on everything from employment to parking and voting.

Court documents in another federal lawsuit say more than 80 people are registered for aggravated prostitution in Tennessee. Most of these convictions took place in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

The Justice Department lawsuit details the experience of an unidentified black transgender woman from Memphis who learned in 2008 that she had HIV, was arrested for prostitution near a church or school in 2010, and was seriously ill in 2012. Was convicted of one count of criminal attempt to commit prostitution. Because she had to register as a sex offender, the woman experienced a period of homelessness while struggling to find safe housing consistent with sex-registry requirements.

The lawsuit says she has also had difficulty finding a job after employers checked her background, and she cannot spend time alone with her nephew because of her conviction.

Additionally, he was arrested and convicted of violating a requirement to update his address change within 48 hours after being displaced by a weekend fire. The lawsuit says Tennessee law also prevents her from changing her legal name to match her gender identity.

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