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Can I Be Arrested for Threatening to Spread Coronavirus?

Back in 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) warned that anyone who intentionally spreads, or threatens to spread, coronavirus, would be charged with terrorism. According to a memorandum sent out in March of that year, 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, argued 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.

Can 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, which we will get to in a moment.

The absence of a specific law, however, does not mean you may not be arrested for assault or other criminal charges for intentionally spreading or threatening to spread coronavirus. Here’s why. Coughing on or at a person with intention, and causing your respiratory droplets to make contact with them, can be construed as assault or even battery. Of course, the other party must be able to prove intention.

Have people been arrested and charged for spreading COVID-19?

Yes. In 2020, a teenager from Rock Hill who allegedly coughed on police officers and posted about it on social media was placed “on house arrest and faces a charge of breach of peace high and aggravated, which has a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.” The teen was supposed to be under quarantine at the time.

A Texas woman was arrested in 2020 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.

The stories keep going. 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, even though it turned out to be a hoax.

Is intentionally spreading COVID-19 considered terrorism?

The DOJ memorandum mentioned earlier 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.

When out in public, ensure you follow all current South Carolina and federal COVID-19 guidelines. 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.

Are quarantine and isolation restrictions legal?

Yes, they are. Health officials can implement these restrictions to prevent the spread of diseases to the public. Per the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL):

Quarantine is not the same as a statewide stay-at-home order.  Stay-at-home orders apply broadly to the entire population of a state or locality, affecting more than just those who are confirmed to have an infectious disease or who have encountered someone carrying the disease. Under a stay-at-home order, individuals are encouraged to stay home and leave their place of residence only out of necessity, for instance, to shop for groceries or receive medical care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, every state used different language and had specific requirements related to these executive order(s). The use of quarantine or isolation powers may create sensitive issues related to civil liberties. Individuals have rights to due process of law, and generally, isolation or quarantine must be carried out in the least restrictive setting necessary to maintain public health.

As you see, everyone has the right to due process, and if you find yourself facing charges for spreading coronavirus or breaking quarantine, the attorneys at Holland Law, LLC can help.

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.