Prosecuting Coronavirus Exposure
As fears over the coronavirus outbreak escalate, so too do the criminal charges associated with potential exposure: While police in New Jersey have started arresting people and charging them with disorderly conduct or maintaining a public nuisance for holding gatherings in their homes, other, more serious actions are being treated quite severely. For example, one man in New Jersey who allegedly purposely coughed on a grocery store employee and made a statement to the effect of having the coronavirus was charged with terroristic threats, while other state prosecutors have reportedly been bringing coronavirus-related assault charges.
However, it is possible that the courts – as well as the public – may view charging defendants with terrorism as going too far. The issue raises questions concerning whether existing federal and state statutes available for prosecutors to rely on when it comes to these charges are appropriate, and if so, whether they fit with these particular fact patterns, as we discuss below.
Federal Terrorism Laws
Federal terrorism laws make it illegal to use “weapons of mass destruction,” where “weapon” includes use of a biological agent or toxin. Anyone found guilty of these crimes can face life in prison or even the death penalty if the offense causes death. However, in order to charge defendants under these laws, the offense must somehow affect the mail, interstate commerce, foreign commerce, or property that is used in or affects interstate or foreign commerce. The courts have been very lenient with this requirement, finding that the government meets this burden simply by demonstrating that, for example, a postal facility would be affected and products would have to travel via the interstate highway system due to the defendant’s actions.
Still, courts have also been hesitant to extend these statutes to conduct beyond what Congress intended, especially if they find that state laws exist that adequately punish a particular type of behavior, such as laws on assault. The courts have held that even including biological agents and toxins in the definition of weapons of mass destruction does not indicate an intent for Congress to apply to situations in which an individual accidentally or purposely exposes someone else to a virus on a local level. Based on previous court decisions, a prosecution under these statutes would likely only be considered viable for those considering purposeful, targeted coronavirus exposure to a larger group of people.
New York & New Jersey Terrorism Laws
New York and New Jersey also have their own laws on terrorism, generally criminalizing threats intended to cause fear of an offense or coerce civilians (New York) or threats that lead to evacuations from a building, public transportation, etc., as well as crimes aimed at inciting terror against people based on their national origin, race, religion, and other factors (New Jersey). While states may have an easier time proving these types of charges because they do not have to address the interstate commerce requirement, they also have a history of treating analogous behaviors (such as knowingly transmitting HIV) as assault or reckless endangerment instead of terrorism.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys If You Have Any Questions or Concerns
If you have any questions or concerns about coronavirus-related crimes at the federal or state level, contact our New York criminal defense attorneys at the office of Phillip J. Murphy today for a free consultation to find out how we can provide you with the very best in assistance.