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What Are the Legal Consequences if You Knowingly Infect Someone With COVID-19?

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By Richard Dahl on April 03, 2020

The key word in the headline above is "knowingly."

As you may know by now, COVID-19 is a sneaky virus and you can be unaware that you're carrying it. And even though you may not feel sick, you can infect someone with it without knowing it. That's why everyone is stuck indoors now.

But what if you know you've got it and you infect someone else? You're probably in legal trouble. Maybe big legal trouble.

There are different levels of "knowingly" infecting someone, of course. On one end of the spectrum are those who fail to self-quarantine when they think they're just a bit under the weather. For this group, there may be legal wiggle room if they did so in the first few weeks of the pandemic before massive lockdowns closed businesses and ordered people to stay indoors. Once those government orders were issued, though, it would appear that anyone who breaks the rules of the order could be in legal trouble even if they unknowingly infect someone else.

When People in Power Ignore Risk

The case of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) fits in nicely here. Paul, you may recall, is the first senator to have contracted COVID-19 and has been roundly criticized for continuing to work and socialize in close proximity to others afterwards. Apparently not showing any symptoms, he took a test on March 16 and, without knowing the results, did not self-quarantine.

Six days later, the results came back as positive, prompting furious responses from Democrats and Republicans alike and self-quarantines by those he'd been around. Washington, D.C. didn't issue its order to stay home and not congregate in groups until March 25, but critics contend that if he thought he needed the test, that's reason enough to self-quarantine. Sen. Paul doesn't face any legal consequences for these actions; the only ones he has to deal with are the criticisms that he behaved irresponsibly.

But what about people in power who should know that their decisions are putting others at risk?

Here, two recent cases come to mind:

  • On March 30, Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, was arrested by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for holding two services attended by hundreds of congregants the previous day after being warned not to do so. The sheriff said the services were a violation of local orders to stay at home. He faces two second-degree misdemeanor charges: unlawful assembly and violation of public-health emergency rules.
  • Unlike other educational leaders, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., ordered the school to remain open as usual. Writing in Slate, Delaware Law School professor John Culhane suggested that Falwell could face a negligence suit because he could be putting people at risk when safer alternatives, like remote classroom arrangements, exist.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin says that arguably "bad actors" of this type need to be aware that they could face civil liability lawsuits once the COVID-19 dust settles.

The precedent for this type of legal action is well established, she writes. "There are a raft of cases involving Legionnaires disease, measles, HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases in which individuals or their next of kin sued those who either negligently or knowingly exposed others to harm."

COVID-19 and 'Terrorism'

Moving along the "knowingness" spectrum to criminal behavior, federal prosecutors recently stepped in to provide some guidance. On March 24, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen suggested in a memo to law enforcement personnel, alerting them that that people who intentionally spread the coronavirus could face criminal charges under federal terrorism laws because the coronavirus "appears to meet the statutory definition of a 'biological agent.'"

Rosen made no mention of whether federal prosecutors have known of any such terrorist activity involving the coronavirus. But at the local level, it appears that police had already been considering even the threat of intentional COVID-19 transmission as a terrorist act.

On March 22, a New Jersey man was arrested by police after he coughed on a supermarket employee, laughed, and said he had the coronavirus. Police charged him with harassment, obstructing administration of law, and making a terrorist threat.

The New Jersey Attorney General's office said that the man could face seven years in prison and a $26,000 fine.

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