Americans deliberately spreading coronavirus could be charged with terrorism, warns Justice Department

There have been many incidents across the US where people have exposed themselves in the public despite knowing or suspecting that they were carrying the virus


                            Americans deliberately spreading coronavirus could be charged with terrorism, warns Justice Department
Jeffrey Rosen and William Barr (Getty Images)

With not all in the US taking the advice to stay indoors during the coronavirus pandemic, the Justice Department has come up with a memo, saying Americans who deliberately expose and infect others with the deadly virus could be slapped with federal terrorism charges. The US is witnessing a serious phase in the outbreak with the number of affected people nearing almost 52,000. Six hundred and seventy-three lives have been lost so far. 

On Wednesday, March 25, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen signed the document and sent it out to attorneys and law-enforcement heads across the nation. It said: “Coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of ‘biological agent’ under 18 U.S.C., [which means that] such acts could implicate the Nation's terrorism-related statuses”.

“Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” it added.

The memo came after Attorney General William Barr last week asked federal prosecutors to put a special emphasis on investigations against fraudsters and hacksters who are taking advantage of the situation. Barr cited in his memo reports of fake cures of the pandemic being sold online and emails from people pretending as public health officials as intolerable crimes. 

NJ, Missouri men charged with terrorist threats

The state of New Jersey has already set a precedent. It invoked its own version of the laws on Tuesday, March 24, by charging a man with making a terrorist threat by coughing on an employee at a supermarket and claiming that he was infected by the virus. Such incidents were also reported from states like Missouri, Illinois and Pennsylvania. 

The Justice Department’s memo was released soon after the incident in New Jersey. The man, George Falcone, 50, was charged with harassment and making terrorist threats, as per the office of the state’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. The third-degree terrorism charge covers a sentence of three to five years in state imprisonment. 

In a separate case, a Missouri man who licked toiletries at Walmart in coronavirus prank was charged with terrorist threat. Cody Pfister, 26, drew the ire of social media after a video posted on Twitter with over four million views showed him running his tongue on several items as he looks directly at the camera. "Who's scared of coronavirus?" he taunts in the short-clip, which he uploaded with the caption, "I'm a nasty moths f*****."

Shelves, where disinfectant wipes are usually displayed, are nearly empty at a Target store on March 02, 2020, in Novato, California, because of coronavirus outbreak. (Getty Images)

Grewal later said in a statement that the act of spreading fear in difficult times was unacceptable. “These are extremely difficult times in which all of us are called upon to be considerate of each other — not to engage in intimidation and spread fear, as alleged in this case,” he said. "We must do everything we can to deter this type of conduct and any similar conduct that harms others during this emergency.”

There have been many incidents across the US where people have exposed themselves in public despite knowing or suspecting that they were carrying the virus. Earlier in March, a woman flew from Boston to Beijing with a layover in Los Angeles while allegedly hiding her virus symptoms. 

The 37-year-old Chinese national was accused of fast consuming anti-fever medicine so that her high temperatures could be suppressed before boarding the flight back home with her family. She later tested positive in China and now faces a three-year sentencing there for possibly spreading the virus on board and at various airports she crossed. 

FBI warns against hackers

FBI officials have alleged that scammers have tried to add to the public anxiety over the pandemic by offering to sell treatments, virus tests and protective gear. Fraudulent emails are doing the rounds, claiming to furnish information about the virus’ spread or ways to get refunds from airlines. The aim is to make panicky people click on links that deceive them to lose important data, NBC News reported. 

One such phishing email, according to the FBI, asks users to verify their personal information so that they can benefit from the economic stimulus checks that the government has initiated to help people in times of their hardships. “Government agencies are not sending unsolicited e-mails seeking your private information in order to send you money,” the NBC News report cited the investigative agency as clarifying.

The Justice Department, however, does not make it clear whether perpetrators must have a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in order to be charged with terrorism-related crimes, Daily Mail reported.

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