US: Tennessee woman charged with “aggravated prostitution”, unusually sympathetic reporting

An unusually sympathetic report of the case of a 28 year-old female sex worker from Knoxville, Tennessee, who faces between three and 15 years in prison for being an HIV-positive sex worker, was published today in the local paper, the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The report is probably the most balanced reporting I have ever seen of a case of this type, and the reporter, JJ Stambaugh, is to be congratulated on his report.

[The woman] differs from most of the 525 other known prostitutes arrested in Knox County over the past five years in one significant way: she is HIV-positive. [Her] medical condition means that when she turns tricks for a living she’s committing a felony called aggravated prostitution. Women without HIV face misdemeanor prostitution charges that often add up to no more than probation and a fine. [She] is a repeat offender, having been convicted twice of being an HIV-infected prostitute before she was arrested a third time early this year, records show. Despite the fact that she’s never been accused of any type of sexual assault, her criminal history already means she must register as a sex offender under state law and follow many of the same restrictions as rapists and child molesters.

Through court records, the article details the woman’s difficult upbringing, her drug addiction, her mental health issues, and her previous arrests for prostitution.

She was discharged from prison the second time last November. Her most recent arrest for aggravated prostitution came April 10, when she was picked up on Magnolia Avenue during an undercover sting that netted eight other streetwalkers and their customers. She has since been held at the Knox County Detention Facility, unable to make her $15,000 bond, jail records show.

In addition to a history of homelessness, she has also been diagnosed with a neurological disorder and mental problems that include “flashbacks of being raped while working the streets,” according to her pre-sentence report.

The article then highlights why, despite its intentions to protect the public health, using the criminal law in this way may not be in the best interests of the community.

The state law that classifies women such as [the accused] as sexual predators is – in the eyes of one defense attorney who has represented several women charged with the crime – just another way of hurting the true victims of abuse.

“I understand there is a public policy to control the spread of HIV, but I’m not sure that accelerating prostitution to a felony charge and meting out more severe punishment is the way to deal with the crisis,” said Julie Auer Gautreau of the Knox County District Public Defender’s Office. “I think it’s inherently unfair to treat sick people, mentally ill people and drug addicts as criminals who are intent on endangering the public, because that’s not what they’re trying to do.

“It may be that they, in effect, present a kind of public danger, but in the case of every prostitute I’ve ever represented, you are dealing with somebody who is deeply troubled, who has suffered for years, and whose addiction … is the result of some kind of abuse or mental illness or addiction.”

Knoxville Police Department Sgt. Chris Baldwin said the aggravated prostitution law is a necessary tool for protecting public health.

“If you are aware that you have a disease or condition that could endanger the health of others, it’s no less in my opinion than pointing a weapon at somebody,” Baldwin said. “When a customer is exposed, then everybody he comes into contact with – including innocent third parties like his family – are at risk at well.

“What you’re doing is putting another human being in danger, not just their moral but their physical well-being.”

Baldwin agrees that many prostitutes are in dire need of drug treatment or psychological help, but stressed that the risks to public health are urgent when a hooker becomes infected with HIV.

As a sex offender, Moore can’t take part in some residential drug treatment programs available to other addicts because she’s not allowed to live at any place that also houses juveniles, records show.

“Ideally, our position is that prostitutes would be arrested and go to some kind of treatment or rehabilitation, but that very rarely happens,” he said. “We have to focus on it from the law enforcement perspective. That’s what we’re tasked with.”

Finally, the article also suggests that prosecutions of HIV-positive sex workers for “aggravated prostitution” appear to be selective.

[She] is one of 39 women in Tennessee who are on the state’s Sex Offender Registry because they have been convicted of aggravated prostitution, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm. She is one of only two women in Knox County to have actually been convicted thus far of the charge, although the Knox County Health Department says at least 10 HIV-infected local women are known prostitutes.