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Justice Department: Terrorism laws might apply if people intentionally spread coronavirus

By MATT ZAPOTOSKY | The Washington Post | Published: March 25, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking official on Tuesday told federal law enforcement officials across the country that they should consider using terrorism laws to investigate and prosecute those who try to intentionally infect others with COVID-19.

The guidance came in a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, addressing the many crimes prosecutors might seek to explore in the wake of the global pandemic. Rosen wrote that among the wrongdoing officials might see is “the purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19.”

“Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’ ” under federal law, Rosen wrote, “such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes.” He cited particular laws governing the development and possession of biological agents for use as a weapon, threats by wire and mail and false information and hoaxes regarding biological weapons.

“Threats or attempts to use covid-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote.

The guidance, thus far, appears to be theoretical. So far, the only coronavirus-related case the Justice Department has brought is a lawsuit against a website claiming to distribute coronavirus vaccines, which do not exist. State and local authorities, though, have used their own terrorism threat laws in coronavirus-related matters.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, for example, announced Tuesday it had charged a Freehold man with making terroristic threats and other, related crimes on suspicion of coughing on an employee of a Wegmans grocery store and claiming he had the coronavirus.

According to a news release, the employee was concerned that the man, George Falcone, 50, was standing too close to her and an open food display and asked him to step back. Instead, according to the release, Falcone stepped forward, leaned toward her and coughed, laughing and saying he was infected with the coronavirus. He told two other employees they were lucky to have jobs, according to the release.

A detective working a security detail approached Falcone, who identified himself only after about 40 minutes, according to the release. He was allowed to leave, though authorities later issued a summons for him to appear in court. Falcone referred a reporter to his attorney, who did not return a message immediately Wednesday morning.

Similarly, the Warren County, Mo., Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Cody Lee Pfister, 26, with making a terrorist threat after he posted a video online of himself licking merchandise in a Walmart, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. According to the Dispatch, the video shows Pfister saying, “Who’s scared of coronavirus?” then licking a row of deodorant sticks. Efforts to locate a phone number for Pfister were unsuccessful.

Rosen’s memo also seemed to address a wide array of potential crimes stemming from the pandemic, ranging from people selling fake cures to businesses hoarding medical supplies in a way that might break the law. Attorney General William Barr has taken a particular interest in that topic, appearing at a White House coronavirus briefing this week to announce the creation of a task force that would pursue those illegally stockpiling scarce items.

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