Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: July Enactments

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   Children / Severe Child Abuse / Exposure to Dangerous Drugs – A new law was passed this year to protect children from being exposed to dangerous illegal drugs.  It expands the definition of “severe child abuse” to involve a child’s exposure to certain extremely dangerous or illegal drugs.  It also provides an individual that knowingly allows a child to be in the presence of and have accessibility to such drugs as cocaine, methamphetamine or fentanyl will be guilty of severe child abuse. 

   Safe Home for Trafficked Children – A new law was approved to help prevent minors who are victims of human trafficking from being prosecuted for prostitution and ensure they are given the care they need to recover. It requires law enforcement officers to alert the Department of Children’s Services when they take a minor into custody on charges of prostitution so the child can appropriately be placed in a safe home. This helps ensure the child can receive any professional assistance they may need and can be removed from a life dictated by abusive traffickers. 

   Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking Victims / Self Defense – A new law was enacted to establish certain considerations regarding the use of force by victims of human trafficking. It authorizes victims to use force that could result in serious bodily injury or death, even if the victims are engaged in illegal activity or in a location they are not legally allowed to be, if they are in the situation as a result of their status as a human trafficking victim. Under the new law, the victim must prove in court they are a victim of human trafficking in order to use deadly force. Previously, Tennessee law allowed victims to respond in kind to a reasonable belief of a threat of death or serious bodily injury by using force as self-defense or defense of a third party. However, force was not lawful when used by persons engaged in criminal activity in a location they were not allowed to be or in a location that furthered criminal activity. Often times, victims of human trafficking can be engaged in criminal activity that is largely forced on them by a trafficker, such as manufacturing or selling drugs.

   Sex Trafficking / Full Sentence – Another bill passed this year adds those convicted of sex trafficking to the category of sexual predators who are ineligible for early parole or release before completion of their full sentence. The new law applies to offenders who have been convicted of one or more predatory offenses. 

   Human Trafficking / Evidence / Social Media Platforms – Legislation was passed during the 2021 session to help prosecute crimes involving human trafficking in cases where a social media platform was used.  In human trafficking cases, it is common for defendants to use their cellphones to communicate through social media or chats to negotiate over a price of a victim. The legislation authorizes a law enforcement officer, district attorney or designee, or the attorney general or designee to require the disclosure of wire and electronic communications for evidentiary purposes to crack down on human trafficking offenses organized through social media platforms. 

   The conversation or data from these platforms is needed to corroborate the victim’s story of what happened. Companies or providers that refuse to comply with the legislation can be punished for contempt of the court.

   Truth in Sentencing – The 112th General Assembly passed major “Truth in Sentencing” legislation strengthening protections for victims and their families.  It ensures certain violent or sexual offenders serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by a judge or jury. The new law affects offenses that historically target women and children such as rape, sexual battery, continuous sexual abuse of a child, sexual battery by an authority figure, incest, promoting prostitution, aggravated child abuse, domestic assault, aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and trafficking for a commercial sex act. While the legislation does not remove judicial discretion, it ensures that parole and probation are not options for those found guilty of crimes that fall into these categories. 

   Counselors / Sexual Misconduct — Legislation designed to protect victims from an unscrupulous counselor or clergy member was approved on final consideration this year. The new law adds a victim is incapable of defense if sexual contact occurs during the course of a consultation, examination, treatment, therapy or other professional service that are provided by a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, social worker, nurse, chemical dependency counselor or a member of the clergy. 

   Animal Cruelty – Aggravated animal cruelty is a grave crime that includes intentionally killing or causing serious physical harm to a companion animal such as a dog or a cat. State lawmakers approved legislation in 2021 to remove barriers to prosecute aggravated animal cruelty cases in Tennessee.  Before, to convict a person of aggravated animal cruelty a prosecutor must prove the act was done in a ‘depraved or sadistic manner.’ The new law removes the language ‘depraved or sadistic’ from the law, which is a difficult intent to prove. It provides that a person commits aggravated cruelty to animals when, with no justifiable purpose, the person intentionally or knowingly kills, maims, tortures, crushes, burns, drowns, suffocates, mutilates, starves, or otherwise causes serious physical injury, a substantial risk of death, or death to a companion animal. 

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