Coughing on police, merchandise may be prosecuted as terrorism in war on coronavirus
On March 10, a man named Cody Lee Pfister walked into a Missouri Walmart and filmed himself licking deodorant on one of the shelves.
According to the statement of probable cause Warrenton police later used to secure a warrant for his arrest, Pfister turned to a phone camera and asked, "Who's scared of coronavirus?" before sticking out his tongue and "dragging it across approximately ten (10) containers on the shelf and a portion of the shelf itself."
He and friends shared the video on social media, where it promptly went - well, viral - with 40,000 shares on Facebook and more on other platforms. Within days, the 26-year-old was charged with making a terrorist threat in the second degree, a felony.
"It was idiotic, moronic, all those things," said Pfister's attorney, Patrick Coyne. "But was it felonious? That's going to be the question."
Attorneys and law enforcement officials are suddenly grappling with questions like that one - if not precisely like that one - amid new regulations aimed at stopping the spread of covid-19. As governors and mayors issue stay-at-home orders and ban gatherings, law enforcement personnel are tasked with making sure citizens comply with unprecedented restrictions on their freedom of movement and, in some cases, their livelihoods, during a crisis unlike any most have ever experienced. And they are doing so in full knowledge that to enforce laws meant to keep people apart, they must come in close contact with would-be violators.
"Police are put in this unenviable position of trying to enforce that," said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group of state and local police executives that researches ways to improve policing practices.
"The challenge is finding a way to engage with the public when you don't want to arrest someone. That's the last thing you want to do. You want to educate the public - and not make people's lives worse than they already are."
While law enforcement officials around the country are spending more and more time breaking up gatherings and knocking on doors of nonessential businesses that flout closure orders, they are also encountering a less familiar offense: People are using the novel coronavirus itself as a threat by coughing on officers or one another, threatening to cough on those around them, or contaminating merchandise at stores.
In one instance, Gerrity's grocery store in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, was forced to throw out $35,000 worth of food when a woman allegedly coughed and spat on it on purpose and claimed to be infected with the virus. She was charged with making terroristic threats, among other things. A man faces similar charges in Minnesota for allegedly coughing on a grocery store employee and making false and racist comments about the cause of the virus.
In Manalapan, New Jersey, a Wegmans employee asked a 50-year-old man to move away from her and the display of prepared foods she was tending. Instead of backing up, the man allegedly moved closer, coughed and told her he was infected with the virus.
In another disturbing pattern, reports are mounting of Americans threatening law enforcement officers with the virus. In Alaska, a woman allegedly caught shoplifting told officers she was suffering from the virus, before retracting that story to avoid felony charges. In Martin County, Florida, a man pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving allegedly told officers he was suffering from the virus, removed a mask they gave him and began intentionally coughing toward the officer. He was charged with assault and threatening a public servant.