Can coughing in another person’s face be an act of terrorism?
As prosecutors and law enforcement nationwide crack down on coronavirus-related scams and fraud, a handful of recent arrests and prosecutions on terrorism charges have been made against individuals accused of threatening to spread the virus, though it’s unclear how similar cases might be handled in San Diego County.
On Tuesday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a man was being charged with third-degree terroristic threats for allegedly coughing on a food store employee, then telling the employee that he had the coronavirus.
According to prosecutors, the employee told George Falcone, 50, to step back from an open display of food and he allegedly responded by leaning toward her, coughing, then laughing and saying he was infected.
Grewal said his office would “respond swiftly and strongly whenever someone commits a criminal offense that uses the coronavirus to generate panic and discord.”
In Missouri, a man was charged this week with second-degree terroristic threats for posting a video on social media, in which he was purportedly seen licking items at a Walmart store, then recorded himself saying, “Who’s scared of the coronavirus?” according to the St. Louis Post- Dispatch.
A memo issued Tuesday by the Office of the Deputy Attorney General directs U.S. Attorney’s Offices to pursue prosecutions for fraud and scams related to the virus, as well as individuals who make “threats to intentionally infect other people.”
The memo said that because the coronavirus “appears to meet the statutory definition of a `biological agent,”‘ intentionally spreading COVID-19 or falsely representing that one was spreading the virus “potentially could implicate the nation’s terrorism-related statutes.”
A joint news release issued earlier this week by local prosecutors stated that San Diego’s U.S. Attorney’s Office was working with county and city prosecutors to pursue individuals or businesses who engage in price gouging or fraud related to the coronavirus.
Regarding potential terrorism-related charges for people accused of spreading the virus, a local U.S. Attorney’s spokeswoman said, “If we determine a federal crime has been committed, we are prepared to use whatever statute is appropriate for the situation.”
San Diego police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said such acts would likely fall under California Penal Code 347, which prohibits poisoning someone’s food, drink, medicine or public water supply.
The same statute also applies to maliciously making a false report of poisoning.
Takeuchi said such an act would lead to a felony arrest, after which the case would turned over to prosecutors for potential criminal charges.
A San Diego County District Attorney’s spokesman said the office could not speculate or speak to what potential charges would stem from such an incident.
— City News Service
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