Monday, November 20, 2023
OUTMemphis sued Tennessee challenging its existing aggravated prostitution law on statutory and constitutional grounds. Read the full complaint here. The preliminary statement is excerpted here.
2.Unlike Prostitution, which is a misdemeanor, Aggravated Prostitution is a felony that requires lifetime registration as a “violent sex offender” pursuant to the Tennessee Sexual Offender and Violent Sexual Offender Registration, Verification and Tracking Act of 2004 (“TN-SORA”). This drastic difference in treatment turns solely on HIV status and is so unmoored from medical facts as to punish sexual encounters that pose no risk of HIV transmission.
3.While Aggravated Prostitution and its related registration requirements completely fail to protect public health, the laws immeasurably harm those they target. Jane Does 1–4 are transgender and cisgender women living with HIV, who were convicted of Aggravated Prostitution and must register as “sexual offenders” or “violent sexual offenders” for the rest of their lives under TN-SORA. They are joined as Plaintiffs in this matter by OUTMemphis, a non-profit organization that provides the LGBTQ+ community, including people convicted of Aggravated Prostitution or at risk of being charged with Aggravated Prostitution, with support with housing, employment, healthcare, and other needs. Together, Plaintiffs sue to end Tennessee’s irrational, discriminatory, and cruel and unusual treatment of people living with HIV.
4.HIV has long been recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”). The ADA prohibits discrimination by state government entities by reason of a person’s disability. Defendants are explicitly violating this guarantee by subjecting people living with HIV who are convicted of engaging in sex work to dramatically increased criminal liability and lifetime registration as “violent” sex offenders—solely by virtue of their disability. This discrimination is imposed without any case-by-case, individualized assessment of any threat to public health. The Aggravated Prostitution law does not specifically target sexual behavior that can transmit HIV. Nor does it account for the fact that either partner to a sexual interaction can mitigate or entirely eliminate the risk of transmission of HIV. Given the actual science of HIV, Jane Does 1–4 and others convicted of Aggravated Prostitution need not and did not pose a threat to anyone’s health or safety.
5.As Congress recognized in passing the ADA, “society tend[s] to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities.” For this reason, the very purpose of the ADA is to address ongoing discrimination against individuals with disabilities in critical areas like employment and housing. Subjecting people to lifetime sex offender registration because of their HIV status directly frustrates these goals. Under TN-SORA, Plaintiffs are effectively barred from many employment opportunities, housing options, and public spaces as well as family and community life: they are, for example, forbidden from working, living, or even spending short amounts of time within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, park, or other area where children gather. For Jane Does 1–4, who live in large cities like Memphis, finding work and housing outside these vast and ever-changing registry “Exclusion Zones” is nearly impossible.
6.The restrictions are particularly disruptive of family relationships, even though such relationships are critical to successful community reintegration and are known to reduce recidivism. Jane Does 1–4 cannot be alone with their nieces, nephews, or grandchildren, and are forbidden, for example, from watching their grandchildren perform in a school play or sporting event. This is so even though their convictions have nothing to do with the abuse of children.
7.Along with being unlawful, Tennessee’s criminalization of disability status is counterproductive as a means of addressing HIV. The scientific consensus is that HIV-criminalization laws do not reduce the prevalence of HIV. Rather, by criminalizing knowledge of one’s HIV status, Tennessee disincentivizes at-risk individuals from seeking testing and erodes the trust in medical professionals that is needed to successfully access treatment and limit transmission.
8.There are many other chronic and manageable infectious conditions prevalent in Tennessee, but none are subject to such draconian and counterproductive punishment. That individuals living with HIV are treated so differently can only be understood as a remnant of the profoundly prejudiced early response to the AIDS epidemic, and the continuing marginalization of the Black cisgender and transgender women who have borne the brunt of the Aggravated Prostitution and related registry requirements. Indeed, in 2022, a Black woman in Tennessee was 290 times more likely to be on the sex offender registry for an HIV-related conviction than a white man.
9.While many states across the country have reformed their discriminatory and scientifically unsound HIV-specific criminal laws in recent years, Tennessee has continuously increased the penalties for Aggravated Prostitution through amendments to its registry scheme retroactively applied to Plaintiffs. Today, Tennessee’s Aggravated Prostitution statute is the only law in the nation that treats people living with HIV who engage in any sex work, even risk-free encounters, as “violent sex offenders” subjected to lifetime registration. 10.Counterproductive and harmful, Aggravated Prostitution and its related requirements under TN-SORA violate the ADA, equal protection, substantive due process, the Eighth Amendment, and the prohibition against ex post facto laws, and must be struck down.