Tennessee Removes Required Sex Offender Listing for Decades-Old HIV Disclosure Law
Tennessee will no longer require sex offender registration for someone convicted of not disclosing an HIV diagnosis to a sexual partner.
Health advocates say the change will help destigmatize the disease and hope it will move the state closer to enacting further reforms to what are referred as HIV criminalization laws.
Nearly 30 years ago, lawmakers made it a felony for an individual to knowingly have HIV and not tell someone with whom they “engage in intimate contact.” Under this so-called criminal exposure law someone who has been diagnosed and who donates blood or share needles can also be punished.
While many other states passed similar regulations in the ‘80s and ‘90s–a period before advances in effective HIV treatment–Tennessee is one of only six that can also add people to its sex offender registry if convicted.
That will change July 1 when a new law goes into effect eliminating the violent sex offender registry component. The bipartisan legislation passed by a wide margin and received Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s signature last month.
The measure also allows those already convicted to apply to remove their names from the registry as long as they aren’t listed for an additional offense.
“Much has thankfully changed in treatment and prevention of HIV and also knowledge of it,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, speaking during a judiciary committee meeting earlier this year. “Removing the violent sexual offender registry penalty is reasonable because the harsh, negative consequences of the registry should be reserved for the worst crimes that involve violent activity.”
About 70 people are currently listed as sex offenders for a criminal exposure charge, according to researchers at the Williams Institute and could be eligible to remove themselves.
Lashanda Salinas, who is 41 and lives in Hartsville, is one of them and says the new regulations will give her life back.
“This is going to open up so, so many doors,” she says.
An ex-boyfriend accused her of not revealing she was HIV positive. She denies that, but says she had no way to legally prove she told him. Even though she says she was also taking medication that would have protected her partner, she pleaded guilty in a deal to avoid prison time.
As a result, she’s been a registered sex offender for more than 15 years and faces severe restrictions on where she is able to go due to the presence of children, including where she can live and work. She says that even at church, she has to remain under her pastor’s supervision.
She has already submitted her paperwork to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to request her removal from the registry and looks forward to visiting public places she couldn’t before.
“I’m going to a park,” she says. “I’m going to a swimming pool.”
Paula Foster, advocacy coordinator for the HIV services organization Nashville Cares, which backed the new legislation, says the “he said, she said” nature of cases like those of Salinas, highlight one of the many reasons they are asking lawmakers to further reconsider HIV-specific criminal policies.
“These laws are antiquated, and quite frankly they were never good laws in the first place,” she says.
Foster says the criminal exposure law, as well as another one that makes it felony for someone who is HIV positive to engage in sex work, do not take into account that modern drug therapies can virtually eliminate the possibility of spreading the virus sexually.
“If you are in treatment, and you are taking your treatments appropriately, your viral load for HIV can be undetectable,” she says. “If you have an undetectable viral load, you cannot transmit the virus to someone else.”
While opponents to eliminating the sex offender registry requirement have argued in the past that people have a duty to disclose a diagnosis, Foster says the laws can discourage regular testing, as someone can only be charged with a crime if they know their status and regardless of whether they acted with intent to spread disease.
According to health officials, widespread and accessible testing is one of the most important strategies to ending the HIV epidemic.
“[This year’s legislation] was a good start to changing the way people think about HIV and that it is no longer the death sentence that it used to be,” Foster says.
This post has been updated.