DOJ Sues Tennessee, Demands State Stop Enforcing Law Against Sex Workers That Spread HIV

In a stunning but not surprising announcement, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has challenged Tennessee’s enforcement of its aggravated prostitution law against individuals with HIV, deeming it a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The DOJ warned that continued enforcement would lead to a federal lawsuit, and now they’ve filed suit.

This stance by the DOJ has been met with critical skepticism, especially considering the severity of the issue at hand.

The core issue lies in Tennessee’s legal stance, which imposes lifetime registration as a violent sex offender for those convicted of aggravated prostitution, regardless of their knowledge about potentially transmitting HIV.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, criticized this law, stating, “Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV.”

The DOJ’s lawsuit specifically calls out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office for enforcing a statute that harshly penalizes individuals solely based on their HIV status, a move seen as discriminatory under Title II of the ADA.

An 11-page letter to Tennessee’s Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti detailed these findings.

It points out the discrepancy in punishment for aggravated prostitution—a felony with potential imprisonment of three to 15 years and up to a $10,000 fine—compared to misdemeanor prostitution charges.

The DOJ emphasizes how the state’s aggravated prostitution law, passed in 1991, no longer aligns with current understandings and treatments of HIV/AIDS.

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Moreover, the DOJ argues that the law exacerbates homelessness due to the Sex Offender Registry’s restrictions, which significantly impact densely populated areas like Memphis, where the law is most enforced.

The Justice Department demands Tennessee to cease enforcing the aggravated prostitution law, including sex offender registration requirements, and to remove individuals convicted of aggravated prostitution from the state’s Sex Offender Registry.

They also proposed further actions for the state and TBI to rectify the issue, with the threat of legal action if cooperation is not forthcoming.