Justice Department Sues Tennessee For Criminalizing HIV

Manoj Prasad

On Thursday, the Justice Department sued Tennessee and its Bureau of Investigation, claiming they violated the ADA by prosecuting people living with HIV.

Federal prosecutors are saying Tennessee’s law on “aggravated prostitution” is deeply unfair. This turns the crime into a felony, and if the person has HIV, he or she may face more than ten years in prison. And understand this, it’s not even about whether they actually spread the virus or not, it’s just because of their disability. This is completely illegal discrimination.

The lawsuit shows that the Justice Department is actually cracking down on state laws that unfairly target and punish people living with HIV without any legitimate reason related to public health.

In Tennessee, there’s this law called 39-13-516 that they call “aggravated prostitution.” This is basically when someone living with HIV is charged with prostitution, but instead of it being just a regular misdemeanor, it is raised to a felony.

If you are caught with misdemeanor prostitution in the state, you may have to spend 6 months behind bars and pay $500 in fines. But if you are living with HIV and are found guilty under the strict law, you may have to face 3-15 years in jail and a hefty fine of $10,000. Crazy, right?

Someone’s HIV status alone can make a difference in a harsher sentence, even if they have proven there is no real risk of transmission or intent to transmit.

The Justice Department is suing because they think the law against aggravated prostitution runs afoul of the ADA, which says you can’t discriminate against people with disabilities unless the government has a good reason to.

Federal lawyers are saying that punishing people more harshly just because they have HIV doesn’t really help public health and actually shows that people still don’t understand how HIV is spread and what it involves. There are risks involved.

Even more worrying, according to federal officials, is that individuals who are found guilty under this law have to deal with additional discrimination and stigma because they are required to register as sex offenders and publicly disclose their HIV status. The situation has to be disclosed.

The Justice Department’s complaint reveals the serious impact prostitution has on people with disabilities.

There is a person who is going through hard times, facing homelessness and unemployment due to housing and work restrictions for people on the criminal registry. Furthermore, he is always worried about people finding out about his HIV status.

Another woman was busted on serious prostitution charges and had to stay away from her children for three whole years because of state regulations.

Assistant AG Kristen Clark said the lawsuit was part of the DOJ’s larger mission to prevent the use of criminal law against vulnerable groups.

Clark said people living with HIV should not have to deal with a different justice system just because of outdated ideas and misconceptions.

The lawsuit wants the courts to stop Tennessee from strictly enforcing prostitution laws against people with HIV. The DOJ may also take a closer look at similar laws in six other states.

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