Transmitting a disease like COVID-19 is a bad thing, but is it a crime?

In the last few weeks there have been several news stories about persons that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 recklessly going out in public. A man flew from New York to Florida after having a positive test. In Pennsylvania, a woman is accused of intentionally coughing on produce in a grocery store. This all seems like horribly unwise and harmful conduct, but is it criminal?

Generally speaking, most crimes require intent. So if someone doesn’t know they are infected with a disease, they are safe and would not have any criminal liability for spreading the disease. However, for those that know they have been diagnosed, there could be a legitimate argument that they acted intentionally if their actions are reckless. So what crimes could they be charged with? Let’s first look at assault.

Defining Assault in Minnesota

In Minnesota, you commit an assault when you:

(1) commit an act with intent to cause fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death; or

(2) intentionally inflict or attempt to inflict bodily harm upon another.

So, if the woman who coughed on the produce section of the grocery store did this to scare others, she could be charged with assault. In Minnesota, a person does not even need to be injured for there to be an assault. If there is an injury, an assault’s criminal penalties can increase quite significantly.

Even if an individual acts without intent to harm others, but the person acts in such a devious manner that another person were to later die, there could even be potential for murder charges. Third Degree Murder in Minnesota is defined as:

Whoever, without intent to effect the death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, is guilty of murder in the third degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years.

It is also worth noting that Minnesota has a crime on the books called “knowing transfer of a communicable disease.” From the title, this statute would appear to cover the exact question we are dealing with. However, a detailed reading of that statute limits the crime to only circumstances when there was sexual penetration, the transfer of bodily fluids, or the use of needles or syringes. Be prepared for the legislature to look closely at this statute once the pandemic is through.

Ultimately, there is potential for criminal liability if someone acts in a grossly negligent manner. We here at Sieben Edmunds Miller ask that everyone do their best to abide by the Governor’s Orders. Please stay at home and practice social distancing. If you have questions or concerns, please know that we are always available to discuss any issues of potential criminal liability.