Justice Department Finds that Enforcement of Tennessee State Law Discriminates Against People with HIV

Content From: Department of Justice Office of Public AffairsPublished: December 19, 20233 min read



Cross-posted from: The Department of Justice

Note: this release was published by DOJ on 12/1/23

The Justice Department announced today its finding that the State of Tennessee, including its Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office (SCDAO), violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by enforcing the state’s aggravated prostitution statute against people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Today’s announcement comes on World AIDS Day, an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic.

The department’s comprehensive investigation found that the state and the SCDAO subject people living with HIV to harsher criminal penalties solely because of their HIV status, violating Title II of the ADA. 

“Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status. The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.”

Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution statute elevates what would otherwise be misdemeanor conduct to a felony because the individual has HIV, regardless of any actual risk of harm. A person convicted of aggravated prostitution faces three to 15 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000, while a person convicted of a misdemeanor charge based on the same conduct is subject to a sentence of no more than six months and up to a $500 fine. While the aggravated prostitution statute applies statewide, it has been enforced most frequently in Shelby County.

Aggravated prostitution is also categorized as a “violent sexual offense” mandating registration by those convicted on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry, in most cases for life. The state maintains the registry through the TBI. Individuals placed on the registry due to convictions for aggravated prostitution are restricted in where they may live, work and go in public, and have experienced increased homelessness and unemployment. These individuals also face public disclosure of information about their HIV status, which can lead to harassment and discrimination. The department opened this investigation in response to complaints about enforcement of the statute.

The department’s letter provides Tennessee, TBI and the SCDAO, with written notice of its findings and details the minimum remedial measures necessary to address them.

The Justice Department plays a central role in advancing the ADA’s goals of equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. For more information on the Civil Rights Division, please visit www.justice.gov/crt. For more information on the ADA, please call the department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301 (TTY 1-833-610-1264) or visit www.ada.gov.

2023.11.30_tn_hiv_lof_final.pdf (PDF, 256KB)