In New Jersey, a drunk-driving suspect claimed he had the coronavirus and planned to “infect everyone with the virus.” Then he started spitting.
In Pennsylvania, a woman arrested for public drunkenness insisted that she was infected with COVID-19 and coughed in an officer’s face.
And in Jacksonville, Florida, a man claimed to have coronavirus and spat on police and a nurse—just days after a woman in the same town who had been arrested on a battery charge coughed in an officer’s face after claiming to have the virus.
Across the country, law enforcement officials trying to keep the peace and stay safe during the current pandemic are confronting a new hurdle: suspected criminals hoping to evade arrest are claiming to have COVID-19.
Police officers are already struggling with a lack of protective equipment and the impossibility of staying six feet away from someone you’re trying to detain or ticket. In New York City, the American center of the pandemic, nearly 20 percent of the New York Police Department has called in sick, while twelve officers have died.
“They are not going to be able to social-distance, even if they’re not arresting an individual,” said Debbie Hines, a former Maryland prosecutor. “They still can’t stay six feet away”
Meanwhile, the virus has spread in jails and prisons, with the federal Bureau of Prisons reporting nearly 300 infections and Chicago’s Cook County Jail alone recording more than 250 cases.
With that backdrop, people involved in confrontations with police are hoping they can get out of trouble by falsely claiming to have coronavirus. In Spokane, Washington, police arrested a man Thursday after he tried to stop them from arresting his sister on an active warrant. Rather than brawling with the cops, though, the man allegedly coughed in their faces. Now he faces two assault charges.
Falsely claiming to have coronavirus may seem like the ultimate Hail Mary attempt to get oneself free from the law. But it could translate into a longer term in prison. And threatening to spread the virus could earn resisting arrest or terrorism-related charges, according to New York defense attorney Nick Oberheiden. The New Jersey man accused of spitting on police and hospital staff after claiming to have COVID-19 faces a “terroristic threat” charge, for example.
“It could be considered an attempted or actual terroristic threat,” Oberheiden said.
Anyone lying about having coronavirus to federal agents could face even more charges, Oberheiden said.
“If you are the suspect and you lie, the chances are that anything you say will be used against you,” Oberheiden said.
As the pandemic grew in late March, COVID-19 claims made a surprise appearance in a bizarre child kidnapping case in Kentucky. After a QAnon conspiracy theorist allegedly abducted her daughter, sheriff’s deputies tracked her to another county, where she was hiding out in a house with a group of far-right “sovereign citizens,” according to Logan County Sheriff Stephen Stratton.
The situation was already tense, given that sovereign citizens subscribe to extremist anti-government legal theories that hold that United States laws don’t apply to them. But when officers went inside the house to get the abducted girl back on March 26, they encountered a new problem. The sovereign citizens all claimed they had fevers, apparently in an attempt to scare off the deputies.
“We are in a serious situation with the coronavirus and encourage people to follow the guidelines, but there are those people that will take advantage of that,” Stratton told The Daily Beast.
The coronavirus threat failed to stop the deputies this time, though. The sovereign citizens in the house didn’t have the virus, and the woman accused of abducting her daughter was arrested.