If it seems like the end of the world and you know it, and you’re feeling fine…
that doesn’t mean you should just ignore all the laws and ‘wild out’!
In 2020, the world was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we knew as normal life was drastically changed. Because of COVID-19’s virality (a virus’ ability to spread to other people), government officials saw this for the potential health threat that it was, and instituted mask mandates and social distancing measures in order to help slow the spread and keep the virus contained. This is a wild change from what 95% of the world had ever experienced before. It was scary, off putting and just a major change to the day-to-day lives of everyone. Because of how strange the time felt, there were instances of people making really bizarre choices.
While most of the population took COVID-19 as a real threat – and many were scared by all the changes to their daily lives (walking around with masks on felt like a sci-fi movie at the time for many of us) – some people took it more as a joke than anything else. Some people even pulled what they thought of as pranks. What some might have thought were just a crude, harmless jokes were actually illegal choices that led to fairly serious criminal charges in many cases.
In Tennessee in April of 2020, right at the start of social distancing measures, a man was arrested after coughing on several customers in a Walmart while loudly claiming that he had COVID-19. While the man most likely meant for his actions to be a crude joke, it was seen very differently by authorities.
The District Attorney General of Henry County in Tennessee said that the man’s actions could be interpreted as an act of terrorism, as people saw it as a plausible threat to their health with a biological agent. An act of bioterrorism is severely punishable by law, with even pretending or making a fake threat still carrying a felony charge in a lot of states.
For those that don’t know, terrorism is roughly defined as acts of violence used to further some sort of cause like religion or politics. Bioterrorism is still classified as terrorism and is used to cover the use or the threat of a chemical or biological substance, viruses like COVID-19 included.
Terrorism charges have always been a serious matter, but for the past few decades, the government has essentially had a zero-tolerance policy on acts and/or threats of terrorism, no matter the intent. Terrorism is usually broken up into two sections, foreign and domestic. Foreign means a person from another country acting against the U.S., while domestic means a U.S. citizen committing an act of terror on American soil. While there has been a general focus on foreign terrorism since 2001, domestic terrorism has been on the rise in recent years, and any hint of either is taken very seriously by law enforcement.
While terrorism charges are generally used for acts of violence for an ideology (an important personal belief) like religious terrorists that you see often on the news, fake threats and jokes can still hold serious consequences. Hoax (fake) threats may not be charged as full acts of terrorism, but there are still lesser felony charges waiting for making a hoax terrorism threat, no matter the original intent.
There are many other jokes and actions out there that might be interpreted as acts of terrorism by authorities. In Pennsylvania in March of 2020, a woman named Margaret Cirko also faced terrorism charges after spitting on over $35,000 worth of produce in a supermarket! Cirko was seen spitting and coughing, loudly claiming that she was spreading “the virus”, and at one point forced herself to vomit.
Her problematic behavior caused the entire store to be evacuated, and the $35,000 worth of food to be thrown away. Cirko’s “prank” took the previously mentioned example a step further and she faced increased charges because of it. On top of destruction to property and disorderly conduct (both misdemeanors), Ms. Cirko faces multiple charges of terrorism for her actions, which, as we already know, is a serious felony! It generally goes without saying that spreading your bodily fluids on food or other people is considered unacceptable in a civilized society.
These two examples could attempt to be argued as incidents of free speech, if they claimed that they were trying to make a political statement of some kind. However, it’s important to keep in mind that speech isn’t protected if it threatens or endangers other people, and spreading germs by coughing or vomiting at the start of a pandemic is not protected behavior under the First Amendment.
Even just claiming to have contaminated food or spread a disease in some way can lead to criminal action. In Texas in October of 2021, Christopher Perez was sentenced to prison after he posted on his Facebook page claiming that he had paid someone to lick food in grocery stores all over San Antonio. It was later found that Perez’s claim was not real, but there are still criminal consequences for making a threat with a virus like COVID-19.
Again, threatening to or actually spreading a virus is considered bioterrorism, and, as we know, it’s still considered a felony, even if it was a hoax threat. Perez is now in federal prison for his post, showing that even what you post online can still have serious backlash when it comes to terrorism threats.
It’s not just spreading bodily fluids that can get you into trouble with the law. Again, in March of 2020, this time in Las Vegas, a man named Aldo Gonzalez and an unnamed minor faced felony charges for wearing hazmat suits and spraying people in a grocery store with water in order to go viral online. However, from the perspective of the victims and law enforcement, the two were harassing shoppers and spraying them with an unknown biological agent, which we know the legal system takes very seriously.
While the authorities later found out that it was meant as a prank, and that the substance was just water, they still were forced to evacuate the building and quarantine anyone that was sprayed until everything was declared clear. Because of that, Gonzalez faces charges for dispersing a hoax substance, which is considered a felony in Nevada. The prank may have just been meant as a joke, but there is no protection for terrorizing citizens, even if it goes viral online.
All of these cases were originally meant as jokes, however crude they were, and were never meant to be interpreted as terrorism. That’s actually the point of having you read all of this: you need to learn to pause before you prank, and to question whether a choice you’re about to make is one that might not just be mischievous, but criminal! This piece has discussed people licking, spitting, coughing, and ‘frauding’(in the case of the water spray), but these are by no means the only ways ‘pranks’ can be criminal. There are many unique situations – things no one has thought of yet – that can turn criminal. Ignorance or intent isn’t an excuse for breaking the law, and the authorities always takes incidents like this very seriously. Always remember to think things through before pulling any pranks, no matter how small they may seem. Keeping the consequences in mind can help you avoid serving serious prison time for one stupid decision.
Again, this is why you should always remember to ‘Pause Before You Prank’.
In general though, if you don’t learn to pause before you prank from this, at least keep this takeaway in mind: Joking about serious public health crises is frowned upon, and making people feel like their health is at risk can produce serious criminal consequences.
Be sure to provide full explanations for your answers. For more details, you can read the article this piece was sourced from here:
Contributed by: Ethan Champagne
Edited by: Mike Kamer