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Dozens of people could be removed from TN Sex Offender Registry after new bill

Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that amends HIV criminalization laws in the state and removes a clause that required a life-time inclusion on the registry.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dozens of people now have a chance of being removed from the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry after Governor Bill Lee recently signed a bill that gets rid of part of a decades-old law regarding HIV exposure.  

Lashanda Salinas said she’s been unfairly punished under the law and is hopeful the new bill will allow her to live her life more fully.  

Salinas is on Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry.      

“I can't be within 1000 feet of a school, daycare park or anywhere...If I go grocery shopping, and I'm in an aisle where there's a child, I have to go maybe three or four aisles over, and I have to wait there until that child leaves,” Salinas said.  

But her offense had nothing to do with kids. In fact, her story started in 1999 when she was a kid herself.   

“I gave blood,” Salinas said. “About two weeks later, I got a certified letter in the mail from the American Red Cross, and as I read it, all I understood was HIV antibodies.” 

She was just 16-years-old with a life-changing diagnosis. She started medication shortly after and soon went undetectable, meaning she can’t transmit the disease. Salinas has been undetectable for 23 years which is why when she started talking to a man in the early 2000s, she felt comfortable having a very personal conversation with him.  

“Before we even met, you know I said I'm HIV positive, can you handle that? and he said, ‘yes, I can’, so we dated,” Salinas said.  

But she said he became abusive, and they eventually broke up.  

“One thing I did not know was he knew the law, and I didn't,” she said.  

She said shortly after, an officer showed up at her job.  

“He says your ex-boyfriend has filed charges on you for criminal exposure to HIV,” She said.  

Then it was his word against hers that she told him about her status.  

“The only defense is to prove that you disclosed, which is really, really difficult in a court of law,” attorney Jada Hicks with The Center for HIV Law and Policy said. “It's one person's word against the other really.”  

In the end, the justice system believed him, and that's when Salinas said her nightmare started.  

“I got to jail,” Salinas said. “I was under $100,000 bond, and 10% of that was 10,000. At that time, we're going through a lot.” 

She couldn't make bail and sat in jail for nearly two months. She said her father even died during her time in jail, so she took a plea to be able to make her dad's funeral. However, part of that plea deal meant she had to be on the sex offender list.  

“I had to register every three months,” Salinas said. “I had to pay $150 a year to be on the sex offender registry. I had to attend sex offender classes for the three years I was on probation.” 

Since 2005, Salinas has known first-hand the challenges of Tennessee's law.  

“Tennessee actually has some of the harshest laws in the nation when we look at the consequences in terms of sentencing for people living with HIV,” Hicks said.  

Since the early 1990s, there’s been a law in Tennessee where people can face aggravated prostitution or criminal exposure charges. It makes it a felony to potentially expose someone and requires people to register as a sex offender for the rest of their lives.  

“It'll be punishable from three to 15 years, if they know their status... it doesn't require actual transmission,” Hicks said. “It doesn't even necessarily require sexual contact. 

Right now, around 150 people are on Tennessee's sex offender registry for an HIV-related conviction, with over half being for aggravated prostitution.   

The Williams Institute at UCLA’s law school studied the impact on Shelby County. The Memphis area has the highest number of people with HIV convictions on the registry in the state, with more than 60%, and more than 75% of those people are black women. Shelby County makes up almost 40% of people living with HIV in the state, but the county accounts for only 17% of sex offender registrants overall.  

“These laws disproportionately affect women, black people, and black women in particular, so I think it's something that people should be paying attention to because it has such a disproportionate impact on these already marginalized communities, Hicks said.  

Advocates for changing the law said it deters people from getting tested and is hurting public health.  

“Of course, they don't want to get tested because if you know your status, it opens the door for you to face prosecution...If we want to realistically and the HIV epidemic, we're going to have to step outside of this box of thinking that the carceral system is the way to do that,” Hicks said.  

In Salinas case, the laws can also get messy, so she has to protect herself.     

“To tell him you know, I'm HIV positive in a text message. I will screenshot that, along with the phone number. Also, I make them take a video with me,” Salinas said.  

State Representative GA Hardaway said that’s why lawmakers have been trying to change this bill for some time.  A representative introduced a bill last year, but it failed. 

“Sometimes emotions are involved, and you will find that that law will be weaponized against another individual, so partner against partner,” Rep. Hardaway said.  

Then in April, Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that amends the law and removes the sex offender registry requirement for people convicted of Criminal Exposure. People will qualify for removal if they don't have any other sex offenses on their record.  

Advocates say the new law is a good first step.  

“It is great that Criminal Exposure has come off, but we clearly see the Aggravated Prostitution has more convictions, so we want to make sure to follow up and get that removed from the list as well,” Hicks said.  

The Center for HIV Law is continuing to work with Salinas and others to help advocate for updated laws across the country. 

Salinas is able to request her name be removed. She’s already sent her petition to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. However, there’s no timeline for how quickly her name could be removed.  

The new law goes into effect on July 1.  

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