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Feds sue Tennessee over registering HIV sex workers as violent sex offenders

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The federal government filed suit Thursday against Tennessee and its Tennessee Bureau of Investigation over enforcement of the state’s aggravated prostitution statute.

The state law requires people with HIV convicted of aggravated prostitution to register for life as a violent sex offender. The federal suit seeks to stop enforcement of the statute.

The U.S. Department of Justice said the state law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against people with HIV. Justice Department officials sent a letter to state officials in December 2023 warning of a lawsuit if the state continued to enforce the law.

“The enforcement of state criminal laws that treat people differently based on HIV status alone and that are not based on actual risks of harm, discriminate against people living with HIV,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. “People living with HIV should not be subjected to a different system of justice based on outdated science and misguided assumptions.”

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti’s office said that it is reviewing the DOJ’s lawsuit.

Skrmetti’s office on Thursday filed a motion to dismiss a similar lawsuit. In that motion, the office defended the law.

“The challenged statutes’ approaches to stemming the spread of a dangerous, communicable disease more than pass rational-basis muster. Plaintiffs admit that HIV is an incurable disease. If left untreated, HIV will almost always lead to the final stage of the infection or AIDS, followed by death in one to three years. As of 2022, HIV/AIDS has killed over 608,000 people in the United States, and despite recent advances in HIV therapies, more than 32,000 new cases of the deadly disease were recorded in 2021,” they wrote “And when Tennessee adopted its aggravated prostitution statute and made offenders register … things were worse.”

The Justice Department’s investigation found that the state and the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office “subject people living with HIV to harsher criminal penalties solely because of their HIV status, violating Title II of the ADA.”

The Justice Department findings were detailed in a Dec. 1, 2023, letter to Skrmetti.

The state’s aggravated prostitution statute is a felony. A person convicted of aggravated prostitution faces three to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. A person convicted of a misdemeanor prostitution charge faces a sentence of no more than six months and up to a $500 fine. The aggravated prostitution statute applies statewide, but the Justice Department previously said it has been enforced most frequently in Shelby County, the largest county in the state.

The state’s Sex Offender Registry restricts registrants from living or working within 1,000 feet of any school, childcare facility, or public park or playground. The Justice Department said this leads to increased homelessness.