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Can I Be Arrested for Threatening to Spread Coronavirus?

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently warned that anyone who intentionally spreads, or threatens to spread, coronavirus, would be charged with terrorism. According to a memorandum sent out in March 2020, a person could be arrested for coughing on other people or objects with the purpose of infecting others.

The DOJ memo, sent to federal law enforcement and attorneys nationwide, argues that COVID-19 meets “the statutory definitions of a biological agent,” which is why purposefully spreading the virus could meet our country’s terrorism-related statutes. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen also added that threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others “will not be tolerated” by law enforcement agencies.

Will I be arrested in South Carolina for threatening to spread COVID-19?

South Carolina does not have any specific laws regarding threatening to spread coronavirus, and only has one law regarding the use of a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to terrorism.

However, the federal government may choose to arrest you for a crime. You can also be arrested in other states. A Texas woman was arrested last year for posting videos on Snapchat claiming she was intentionally spreading the coronavirus. Local authorities charged her with third-degree felony terroristic threat. In custody, law enforcement found no evidence she was positive for the virus, but she was transferred to jail on $20,000 bond.

Can I be charged for spreading COVID?

Yes, you can. A teenager from Rock Hill was also “criminally charged after she was accused of purposefully coughing toward two police officers, then posting about the incident on social media,” The Herald reports. The teen had been under quarantine at the time.

You can be charged in other states, too. A Florida man faces federal charges for coughing and spitting on police officers responding to a domestic violence call, claiming he had coronavirus. Closer to home, a North Carolina man was arrested for disorderly conduct after using Facebook to threaten to infect other people with COVID-19.

Is intentionally spreading COVID-19 considered terrorism?

The DOJ memorandum references federal statute 18 U.S.C § 2332a, which criminalizes the use of biological agents. This includes viruses capable of causing death and disease in others. What this means for you is that if you are arrested for allegedly perpetrating such a crime, it’s possible to be charged with terrorism even if you were acting alone and not on behalf of any organization.

It’s crucial that we all follow South Carolina’s shelter-in-place orders and, when out in public, to follow all state and CDC guidelines for public safety. This pandemic is extremely serious and everyone must do their part. However, if you find yourself in need of criminal defense due to a misunderstanding or other issue, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

The rules are changing every day – ensure you don’t accidentally break them. If things go wrong, I can help. To schedule a consultation in either our Fort Mill office on Gold Hill Road, or in our Rock Hill office on Oakland Avenue, please call 803-219-2630 or contact us online. Our team serves clients in the York, Lancaster, and Chester County communities.