Memphis/ Politics & Govt
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Published on June 11, 2024
State Senator Brent Taylor Questions Legal Basis of DOJ and Shelby County DA Agreement on Prostitution ProsecutionsSource: Tennessee General Assembly

In a mounting dispute concerning how prostitution is prosecuted in Shelby County, State Senator Brent Taylor has cast doubts over the legality of an agreement between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Shelby County District Attorney's Office, which puts a halt on the prosecutions for aggravated prostitution in cases involving people living with HIV, as reported by Action News 5. Taylor's primary concern, as he noted in a recent letter to Tennessee's Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, is whether this agreement stands on solid legal ground within the state of Tennessee, and he questions the wisdom of the DOJ's approach to altering enforcement of state law without challenging the law itself in court.

The disagreement stems from an arrangement made last May after the DOJ concluded the DA's enforcement of the existing statute contravened the Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA); this statute upgrades a misdemeanor prostitution charge to a felony for individuals with HIV— regardless of any actual risk of transmission, it has been analyzed by the Local Memphis that the DOJ claimed Shelby County's application of harsher penalties for the HIV-positive, including lifetime sex offender registration, didn't factor in the person's actual risk of transmitting HIV.

Amid rising STD and HIV rates in Shelby County, Taylor expressed concern over the impact of the decision to halt these specific prosecutions, mentioning a significant uptick in HIV incidents, particularly in the 15-to-19 age bracket. He argues that the DA's agreement with the DOJ could undermine efforts to address the HIV issue, according to a report by WREG. Taylor's stance suggests he sees the agreement as setting a worrisome precedent that could affect the enforcement of prosecutorial laws across the state, potentially influencing not only Shelby County's legal procedures but also establishing a pattern for unfounded defenses in aggravated prostitution charges throughout Tennessee.

Steve Mulroy, Shelby County District Attorney, defends the agreement, arguing the DA's office is not relenting in the fight against prostitution overall, but rather ceasing to discriminate against those with HIV who are on effective treatment with undetectable viral loads, he pointed out that his office did not want to be mired in costly federal litigation to uphold a discriminatory practice when other methods of addressing prostitution remain, Mulroy reiterated his concentration on violent crimes and his intention to steer clear of what he termed "cultural war distractions," as he stated, as per Local Memphis.

The outcome of Taylor's request for a special prosecutor and a formal response from Tennessee’s Attorney General to his queries remains open-ended, with no immediate timeframe provided for when an official reply might be forthcoming. Mulroy, for his part, insists that his office will continue implementing current laws in the prosecution of prostitution offenses not associated with the aggravated statute in question. Both parties to the dispute seem to stand firm in their positions, with the legal and ethical debate poised to unfurl as the discourse evolves.