The Justice Department is urging federal prosecutors around the country to weigh terror charges against individuals who either threaten to spread or purposely attempt to transmit novel coronavirus to others, according to a newly released memo.
The memo was made public just hours after state terroristic threats charges were announced against a New Jersey man who allegedly coughed on a grocery store employee and told her that he had coronavirus.
"Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated," Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in the memo addressed to all U.S. attorneys Monday.
Rosen says in the memo that, "because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a "biological agent"" under the law, "such acts potentially could implicate the Nation's terrorism-related statutes."
The recommendation was just one in a series offered to prosecutors as the Justice Department shifts focus to prosecuting those who seek to take advantage of the current national crisis around COVID-19.
The Monday memo alarmed some civil liberties advocates, however. The American Civil Liberties union expressed concern Wednesday that DOJ is using the national emergency to overreach on its prosecutorial powers, and argued that the language in the recommendation could prevent some people from seeking help for fear they could be wrongly accused of trying to "intentionally" spread the virus.
“Rather than heeding public health experts' advice to promote public trust in science and reduce prison populations, the Justice Department is threatening to use vague, overbroad, and flawed coercive powers that will make people more afraid to seek care," director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project Hina Shamsi said in a statement.
Attorney General Gurbur Grewal on Tuesday alleged that 50-year-old George Falcone coughed on a female employee at a Wegman's grocery store in Manalapan, New Jersey, after she had raised concerns he was standing too close to her and asked Falcone to step back.
"Instead, Falcone allegedly stepped forward to within 3 feet of her, leaned toward her, and purposely coughed," a statement from Grewal's office said. "He allegedly laughed and said he was infected with the coronavirus. Falcone subsequently told two other employees they are lucky to have jobs."
The statement from Grewal's office indicates Falcone's arrest was based more on his alleged attempt at intimidation rather than any serious suspicion he was infected with coronavirus.
Falcone was then confronted by a detective of the local police department who was inside the store and took down his information.
“Exploiting people’s fears and creating panic during a pandemic emergency is reprehensible. In times like these, we need to find ways to pull together as a community instead of committing acts that further divide us,” said Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni.
It was not clear yet as of Wednesday morning whether Falcone has selected a defense attorney, and attempts to reach him for comment were not immediately successful.
In a separate memo circulated by the Department of Homeland Security Monday, officials warned law enforcement about online postings from white supremacist extremist groups encouraging "infected individuals to intentionally spread COVID-19 in diverse neighborhoods and in religious institutions such as mosques and synagogues."
The memo noted that there has not yet been any credible evidence yet, however, of specific imminent plots by the groups.