It's been over a month since the World Health Organization declared that a new coronavirus (COVID-19) was officially a pandemic. As people and governments across the globe continue to take the COVID-19 pandemic more seriously, questions have arisen about how to handle individuals who refuse to wear masks or even cough on others as a sort of "threat."
If you've wondered, "could someone be charged with assault for coughing on another person during the COVID-19 pandemic?" You're not alone—and we've got the answers. Today, we're diving into how COVID-19 affects the criminal defense industry at large.
It All Started with... Ice Cream?
You may not remember this, but, earlier in 2020, a viral trend briefly kicked off. People—many of them in their teens and 20s—started filming themselves walking into grocery stores, opening ice cream containers, taking a lick, and putting the ice cream back on the shelf.
Disgusting, right? Well, it turns out it was also illegal. One person who filmed himself attempting the stunt in Port Arthur, Texas, pleaded guilty to food tampering. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. He also had to pay Blue Bell Creameries $1,565 in restitution.
Fast forward a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and we're seeing people display similar behavior toward the coronavirus. On April 7, a man in DeBary, Florida, purposefully coughed on a 21-year-old cashier because the cashier was wearing a mask. He told the cashier, “This is getting out of hand. This is why everywhere I go, I cough behind everyone with a mask on.”
Ultimately, what he did wasn't that much different than somebody pulling off the ice cream "prank" a few months earlier. Both acts display a disregard for the safety of other people and their wellbeing. But the consequences for intentionally coughing on someone during the COVID-19 epidemic could be much more severe than the penalties for licking some ice cream.
Can You Be Charged with Assault for Coughing On Someone During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Short answer: yes. In Severn, Maryland, a woman got into a dispute with an employee at a housing complex. Her car had been towed, and she demanded compensation from the employee. When they refused, the woman grabbed their arm and allegedly said she had tested positive for COVID-19. The woman then told the employee they now had the virus, too, implying she had infected them.
The woman faced several charges, including second-degree assault, failing to comply with a health emergency order, and exposure by an infected individual.
Charges don't stop at assault, either. A woman in New York was charged with making a terroristic threat after claiming she had COVID-19 and coughing on people around her.
Why Is Coughing on Someone Assault?
Assault and battery laws vary slightly by state, but assault is generally defined as a premeditated or intentional act that either harms someone or causes another person to believe they are in danger of suffering from immediate bodily harm.
For example, let's say you get in a disagreement with someone and pull out a knife. If you say, "I'm going to stab you," you can be charged with assault even if you don't follow through on the threat, because the other person now has a reason to fear you're going to cause them bodily harm.
Assault charges for COVID-19 work in much the same way. A person who gets coughed on by someone who claims to have the coronavirus might reasonably fear that they now risk contracting the virus as well. As such, they can press assault charges.
To be charged with assault, an individual must:
- Know they're infected. As you'll notice in the other stories we covered, everyone charged with assault for COVID-19 has believed they have the virus, announced that information to others, and announced their intent to infect others with the virus. That's the equivalent of saying, "I'm going to stab you" while holding a knife, except using a disease instead of a physical weapon.
- Act recklessly. It may not be assault for someone with COVID-19 to go outside or be by other people, but it is assault if they knowingly take any actions that could expose others to the virus—which is why people who intentionally try to infect others get charged with assault.
We hope this blog has cleared up any questions you have about COVID-19 and assault charges. At The Law Offices of Daniel J. Miller, we help clients tackle a legal disputes across a wide range of practice areas, including family law and criminal defense.