On March 24, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen sent U.S. attorneys and federal law enforcement agencies a memo informing Department of Justice officials that they should consider prosecuting certain “purposeful exposure or infection of others with COVID-19” under federal terrorism-related statutes. The memo followed warnings from the FBI that white supremacist groups were encouraging members who become sick to spread the virus to Jewish people, minorities and police officers—suggesting that members could use spray bottles, leave bodily fluids on door handles or even spit on elevator buttons. Meanwhile, local news continues to report on cases in which individuals purposefully have coughed on or touched other people and products in grocery stores and other venues across the country.
Because of the infectious nature of the coronavirus, a single individual could easily transmit the virus to several people, causing the number of infected individuals to increase exponentially. Requests for people to socially distance and follow hygienic standards can curtail the spread among well-intentioned individuals, but both the United States and other governments are looking to criminal law to punish ill-intentioned individuals who seek to spread the virus to others and violate social distance guidelines. As concerns about the coronavirus increase, prosecutors may seek to charge such individuals with simple assault (as a Maryland prosecutor has), breach of peace (as a Connecticut prosecutor has) or even attempted murder (as prosecutors in South Africa have).