Could There Be Legal Ramifications for Spreading the Coronavirus?

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As the Department of Justice seeks emergency powers and the rate of new coronavirus infections continues to boom across the United States, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen released a memo on Tuesday concerning the “purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19.”

“Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’ … such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes,” the memo states. The document, obtained by Politico, also warns of more well-defined criminal acts during the pandemic, including “fraudulent offers to sell respirator masks with no intent of delivery,” “sales of fake testing kits,” and “prescription-drug schemes.” While the DOJ has already set up a task force to handle coronavirus scams and price gouging, it’s unclear if the language on intentional infections was precautionary or based on threats or actions already being handled by prosecutors.

On Tuesday, the country saw one of its first examples of a criminal charge related to the coronavirus — though not quite in the realm of the DOJ’s “purposeful exposure” guidelines. In New Jersey, a 50-year-old man was charged with making terroristic threats, harassment, and obstruction of justice after he allegedly got in a supermarket worker’s face at a Wegmans, coughed, and said that he was infected with the coronavirus; the grocery worker had allegedly told him he was too close to a prepared-food bar. Describing the terrorist-threats charge, the state attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, described it as a “criminal offense that uses the coronavirus to generate panic or discord.” New Jersey governor Phil Murphy described the man as a “knucklehead.”

Last week, the state faced another resident with a similar disposition, who during an arrest for drunk driving, allegedly coughed on a Hanover police officer, saying, “I have the coronavirus and so do you.” According to police, she said her boyfriend was hospitalized for the virus; three arresting officers were ordered to self-quarantine, though it was called off when the department determined her claim was “100 percent false.” An investigation determined that the man she had mentioned was hospitalized for a dental issue, and that the two had only been on one date. Following the ordeal, the woman was also charged with false public alarm.

While the Department of Justice memo says nothing of false threats or the the illegality of accidental transmission, breaking a state or federal quarantine does carry unrelated penalties. Breaking a federal quarantine issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is punishable by a year in jail or a fine of up to $100,000, although the CDC has not appeared to use the power outside of an order to quarantine cruise-ship passengers in January. States penalties are less harsh, though more commonly implemented: In Connecticut, those found to have broken an order can be fined up to $1,000, or face imprisonment for up to a year. The most stringent laws are in Maryland and Louisiana, where those who break quarantine are subject to a $3,000 maximum fine and up to two years in jail, respectively. In New Jersey, the penal code is a little more lax and a lot older: Violators “shall be liable to a penalty of not less than ten nor more than 100 dollars for each offense.”

Are There Legal Ramifications for Spreading the Coronavirus?