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Is Coughing or Spitting on Someone Assault? The Fear of Intentional COVID-19 Transmission

By May 13, 2020General

The spread of COVID-19 has made us wary of contact with others. So much so, that someone sniffling or coughing in public causes extreme anxiety. Now, grocery stores and other essential establishments are seriously enforcing social distancing to prevent the transmission of the virus between shoppers and employees to help flatten the curve. 

The coronavirus pandemic brought about many questions and unknowns. What happens when people don’t social distance? Can they be forced to comply, by law? And if so, what implications could that have on our rights?

Or even more sinister, what if someone purposefully breaks social distancing guidelines to invade your space? Sounds outlandish, however, there’ve been dozens of reported cases across the country where assailants, who claimed to have COVID-19, intentionally coughed on victims in public. 

This has us asking, based on the current state of social distancing, what might constitute as assault? And how does that make sense in the context of COVID-19?

 

The Big Question: Is Coughing on Someone Assault?

The simplified answer to this question is: yes, coughing on someone to expose them to illness is assault. However, the situation might not be so cut-and-dry.

The act of coughing or spitting on another person in order to expose them (jokingly or not) to COVID-19 has already been the cause of multiple arrests around the U.S. In Pennsylvania, a man was arrested after coughing in the face of a recovering pneumonia patient while repeatedly claiming to be infected with the coronavirus. A Tennessee man was charged with assault and a New York woman was charged with making a terroristic threat after coughing and spitting on people in Walmart claiming they had COVID-19. 

You may be thinking — Assault? Terrorism? What is it? And what are my protections? As of this moment, there’s no definitive answer to these questions, but they’re worth exploring.

 

COVID-19 Laws and Legal Implications

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, government mandates have been enforced at state and federal levels to help stop the spread of the virus and aid those affected by it. Most orders affecting your day-to-day life, including stay-at-home orders or being required to wear masks in public, come from your state and local governments, while stimulus money and international travel restrictions are ordered at the federal level.

While these mandates were created to keep people safe, they come with their fair share of opponents. There have been protests against the government-imposed quarantine. And the ACLU dismissed a statement by the Justice Department, that it would treat acts of threatening or attempting to spread COVID-19 as acts of terrorism, as overbroad and flawed use of coercive powers.

 

Assault Laws and COVID-19

Currently, there is no law that directly defines the transmission of COVID-19 as assault. However, the past precedent set by similar cases and broader interpretations of laws make assault charges applicable in the eyes of most legal and law enforcement officials. 

Assault is generally defined as an intentional act that causes injury or causes a victim to fear injury. By this definition, coughing on someone and claiming to have COVID-19 is undoubtedly assault, but the degree of assault is still open to interpretation.

Let’s say, hypothetically, you think someone with COVID-19 has coughed on you with the intent to harm. How would you prove this? What would you need to make this case?

 

The Accused Must Know They’re Infected

For the act of coughing on someone to be considered assault, the perpetrator must know they are infected or claim to be infected. It would not be assault if the infected individual was asymptomatic or otherwise unaware of their status.

 

The Accused Must Have Engaged in Reckless Behavior

The second point you’ll need to prove for this act to be considered assault is that the perpetrator needs to be shown as engaging in reckless behavior. This criterion will most likely be met if someone who is sick intentionally coughs on you, but it is left to be seen if a person can be held accountable for entering a public space while knowingly infected.

 

How Might Assault Laws Change After COVID-19?

The conversations around these sinister acts and the severity of their consequences are still evolving, and whether or not laws specifically regarding COVID-19 transmission with be created is left to be seen. But taking a look at history may help us hypothesize upcoming changes.

 

Parallels Between Response to The Spread of AIDS and COVID-19

Though these illnesses are very different, some parallels can be drawn between the response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic. In society, the spread of both of these viruses caused mass anxiety and even discrimination against the perceived at-risk communities.

In response to these fears, several states (including Texas) adopted laws requiring individuals that are HIV/AIDS, or other STD, positive to notify sexual and needle-sharing partners of their status and forbid blood/tissue donation. Individuals who intentionally disobey these orders can be charged with varying degrees of assault, from misdemeanor assault to assault with a deadly weapon, and sued for compensation.

As we continue to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect humanity in the long-term, can we expect to see similar state legislation directly criminalizing the intentional spread of coronavirus? Only time will tell.

 

Have You Been Intentionally Infected with COVID-19?

If you’re concerned that you or someone you love has been intentionally infected by COVID-19, contact DC Law today for a free consultation to discuss your case.