As the United States finds itself in the throes of a second wave of novel coronavirus infections, several jurisdictions have been forced to address the question of the criminality of intentionally or recklessly spreading COVID-19 to others.
Intentionally spreading a disease is an act contrary to the laws of Florida as well as many other states. Generally these laws consist of three elements:
- The defendant knows he or she has the disease,
- the defendant intended to transmit the disease, and
- the defendant carried out a specific act that would increase the risk of the disease’s transmission.
In Florida such laws are aimed at sexually-transmitted disease, but the possibility for the statute to be used in the prosecution of those suspected of intentionally transmitting COVID-19 seems high. Here prosecutors must prove that the defendant knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly spread coronavirus in order to gain a conviction. The penalty for a conviction is that of a first-degree misdemeanor, which can be up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Beyond that, intentionally spreading coronavirus is likely to result in a Federal terrorism charge. In March the Department of Justice said it would bring such prosecutions against those it suspects of spreading COVID-19 on purpose because it meets the statutory definition of a “biological agent.”
The DoJ would likely bring an array of charges against such a defendant whether he or she spreads coronavirus intentionally or makes a threat to do it. Among those charges are development/possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon, threats by wire, threats by mail, false information and hoaxes regarding biological weapons, and use of a weapon involving a biological agent. These are all felonies, and a conviction is likely to lead to a sentence of many years in prison without parole and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
An individual suspected of intentionally spreading coronavirus could be charged under Florida’s assault and battery statutes. Florida has three types of assault charges:
- Felony assault
Simple assault is a misdemeanor in Florida, and its elements are that the defendant intentionally threatened another party and possessed the means to follow through. Aggravated assault could be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony, and the judge or jury would have to determine that the defendant attempted to inflict serious injury. Felony assault is the most serious of the three, requiring a showing that physical injury actually occurred.
Florida defines battery as intentionally striking or touching someone without their consent, or intentionally causing bodily harm to another. In special circumstances the charge may rise to aggravated battery, which is defined as causing great bodily harm or disfigurement while battering them, or used a deadly weapon during the battery. Committing a battery against a person one knows to be pregnant is also grounds for a charge of aggravated battery.
Battery and aggravated battery are both punished as felonies. Simple battery can be punished as a third-degree felony, which may lead to a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $5,000. Aggravated battery may be punished as either a second- or third-degree felony, resulting in up to thirty years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.