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Could You be Arrested For Coughing or Sneezing?

With COVID-19 cases and associated serious illness and fatalities showing little sign of declining in Alaska, there is little surprise that everyone is getting a little paranoid. ‘Essential’ movement to the supermarket, pharmacy, workplace or gas station, even just going for a walk with the dog or a run, has become an intricate dance, keeping the regulation 6 foot distance from anyone you don’t live with. Anyone who coughs, sneezes or, heaven forbid, spits, close by, is looked upon with suspicion. We’ve all become a little more fearful of strangers. Essential workers, especially police officers, health care workers, medical professionals and supermarket workers are all on the frontline and most vulnerable to the potentially deadly virus.

Although it is rare, news of some people deliberately coughing or spitting on others is disturbing. A woman who was arrested for shoplifting in Alaska told police officers that she was infected with the virus (she later retracted her story) in a vain effort to get released. So, is coughing, sneezing or spitting a crime?

Because respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 are transmitted on droplets, coughing, sneezing and spitting, probably also even heavy breathing or talking, could potentially allow an infected person to pass the virus on to someone else. Everyone should know that. News about the pandemic has filled the news 24/7 for weeks now and certainly warnings have been ramped up since Alaska imposed its own state wide shelter at home and distancing rules on March 27th. That means that anyone who intentionally coughs, spits or expels their bodily fluids at another person would be committing a crime. It doesn’t matter if the person is actually infected or not, or whether they knew they were infected or not. Even asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people are quite capable of shedding virus.

What crime could coughing, spitting on someone else intentionally be?

There is no specific crime that fits the exact description above, but the most commonly used crime elsewhere in the U.S. would be a misdemeanor or felony assault. In fact, there was the case of a disturbed Wisalla man, known to be infected with Hepatitis C back in 2011, who intentionally spat on a healthworker at Mat-Su Regional Health Center. He was initially charged with 2nd degree murder, but later the charge was reduced to a felony assault.

Elsewhere in the U.S., incidents in which people have been caught deliberately coughing or spitting on members of the public or essential workers have been charged with assault or even a terror charge.

Because of the general fear that is prevalent in the community, it is wise to be extra careful if you really need to go somewhere where there are other people that you sneeze or cough into your elbow, or just keep a good distance from others. In fact, if you are coughing or sneezing or just feeling ill, you should stay at home and ring your physician.

The bottom line is that you aren’t going to get arrested for accidentally coughing or sneezing in public. It has to be intentional. How a police officer could actually tell whether a cough or a sneeze was intentional is another question. Probably spitting or yelling out that you have COVID-19 would probably get you arrested, though! COVID-19 isn’t a joke.

A misdemeanor assault conviction in Alaska, the least serious charge that you could face for “recklessly placing another person in fear of imminent physical injury through the use of words or other conduct” could mean up to a year in jail and / or up to $10,000 in fines.

Intentionally spitting or coughing in the face of a health worker or a police officer would probably be at least a third degree felony offense with fines of up to $50,000 and a prison sentence of up to 5 years.

If you have been arrested for coughing, sneezing or spitting in public, but believe you are innocent, or elements of the allegation against you are untrue, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. COVID-19 isn’t trivial, but neither is a false or unjustified assault charge. Your innocence will be vigorously defended, and Dattan Scott Dattan will fight to represent you in court. You can contact the Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan in Anchorage at 907-276-8008.

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Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan

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