Prosecuting & Defending Against Coronavirus Crimes in North Carolina
As the coronavirus reaches epic proportions, with the U.S. losing more than 8,400 people as of April 4, criminal penalties related to exposure are also becoming more severe. What started as fairly minor violations related to state stay at home orders, including North Carolina’s, has moved into prosecutors now prosecuting individuals exposing others to the virus with assault, reckless endangerment, and even fraud and terrorism in some cases, all under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Deputy Attorney General. Below, we discuss the viability of some of these charges:
Federal & State Terrorism-Related Statutes & the Defense Production Act
The Department of Justice claims that the coronavirus falls under the statutory definition of a “biological agent” under federal terrorism laws that make it a federal offense to use a weapon of mass destruction such that any individuals, groups, organizations, etc. could be implicated if they attempt to use the coronavirus “as a weapon against Americans.” Indeed, in some states, people have already been charged with terroristic threats after engaging in activities such as spitting on park benches or others while claiming that they had contracted the virus and/or in attempting to infect others, even if it turns out to be part of a hoax.
In order to be charged under federal terrorism statutes, there must be a nexus to interstate or foreign commerce, which the courts have held is a fairly easy threshold for prosecutors to meet (typically if there is some connection to the postal system or transportation of goods). However, unless an extremely dangerous substance with the potential to cause severe harm to many people was used, courts have been more hesitant to extend these statutes beyond what Congress intended, especially for crimes whereby existing state statutes are sufficient to prosecute the activity.
North Carolina’s terrorism statute defines an “act of violence” as a felony offense that includes the threat or use of any explosive or incendiary device or any offense that includes the use of a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon of mass destruction. However, an individual is only guilty of terrorism if they commit the act of violence with the intent of influencing the government or intimidating a particular group of civilians or the civilian population at large.
The government has also advocated for prosecuting businesses and individuals who are accumulating medical devices and/or supplies beyond what is reasonably needed on a daily basis beyond what is needed for the purpose of selling them in excess of market prices under the Defense Production Act (in addition to prosecuting those engaging in fraudulent schemes and/or fixing prices using antitrust laws).
Assault & Reckless Endangerment
A more likely hypothetical prosecution of “crimes” related to coronavirus exposure might be drawn to HIV exposure, where 20 states make it a crime for people with HIV to have sex without first informing their partner that they are infected (although North Carolina recently updated its HIV policies to exempt patients from prosecution if they are on medication that suppresses the virus). However, others have been charged with assault or reckless endangerment for knowingly exposing another to a communicable disease. The question becomes, if that other individual who is exposed dies, could the individual who exposed them to the virus end up being charged with manslaughter?
If You Have Been Charged with A Crime in North Carolina, Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are facing charges or have any questions about federal or state criminal charges, contact experienced North Carolina criminal defense attorney Rashad Hauter. As a former prosecutor, he has the experience necessary to provide you with the very best in legal representation.