By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK, May 14 (Reuters) - Accused criminals across the United States have started using the threat of deadly COVID-19 infection as a weapon in attacks on police, retail clerks and grocers trying to keep the nation fed during lockdown.
Threats of spreading COVID-19 have occurred from coast to coast, raising questions about whether states will move to criminalize the weaponization of the novel coronavirus, the way more than half of U.S. states made undisclosed HIV exposure a crime when the AIDS crisis erupted in the 1980s.
A Michigan man wiped his nose and face on the shirt of a store employee who was trying to enforce a mask-wearing requirement. The 68-year-old man was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery and, if convicted, faces three months behind bars and a $500 fine.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, a man coughed and spit on police and threatened to spread the virus as they responded to domestic violence calls to his home. He faces up to five years in prison on federal charges of perpetrating a biological weapons hoax after his test results came back negative.
A San Antonio, Texas, man claimed in a Facebook post that he paid someone to spread coronavirus at grocery stores. While his threat was deemed false, he too was arrested and charged with a biological weapons hoax. He claimed he was trying to deter people from visiting stores in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, federal prosecutors in Texas said.
New Jersey is among the first states to consider making it a crime to issue a "credible threat to infect another with COVID-19 or similar infectious disease that triggered public emergency," said a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Advocates for HIV-positive people said states drafting such laws should be careful not to make them so broad that they punish poor and minority communities, as studies show HIV criminalization has, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA School of Law.
Over the last four decades, at least 26 states passed laws to criminalize HIV exposure. Crimes range from biting to donating blood, and in most cases no HIV infection is required for a person to be charged with "criminal transmission of HIV."
Several studies have found HIV criminalization laws targeted minorities, said Brad Sears, associate dean of Public Interest Law at UCLA Law School. Those laws were created in response to a negative stereotype of "a predatory gay or bisexual man," he said.
Criminalization of COVID-19, on the other hand, is not gaining immediate momentum because it primarily affects the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, Sears said.
But, he said, as the pandemic is increasingly concentrated in poor Americans and people of color, that could change states' appetites for criminalization efforts.
"That could increase the risk that state legislatures pass criminal laws to kind of scapegoat the very people who need to be protected," Sears said.
In New Jersey, Republican Senator Kristin Corrado's bill to punish anyone convicted of threatening to spread COVID-19 with up to 10 years behind bars and a $150,000 fine was before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee this week.
"To those who think it is cheeky to pull a sick prank like this - you will suffer the consequences of your poor decisions," Corrado said in a statement.
"These threats will not be taken lightly, and those found guilty will be punished to the fullest extent of the law." (Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by David Gregorio)
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