(AP) — The Justice Department charged two people with federal terrorism offences on Wednesday for allegedly claiming they were intentionally trying to spread the coronavirus.
The charges, in cases in Texas and Florida, come about two weeks after Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen instructed federal prosecutors across the US that they could charge people who threaten to spread the coronavirus under the terrorism statutes because the Justice Department considers it a “biological agent” under the law.
“Threats or attempt to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote in the memo to US attorneys and the heads of all Justice Department agencies, including the FBI.
More than 400,000 people have been diagnosed in the U.S. with the virus, which has prompted stay-at-home orders from lawmakers across the country.
Authorities have reported an uptick in hate crimes and virus-related scams.
Prosecutors allege James Jamal Curry, 31, of St Petersburg, Florida, coughed on an officer’s arm while he was being arrested on a domestic violence charge on March 27 and told the officer, “Well I got the Corona,” according to court documents.
He posted a bond and was released from jail the next day before officers were called to his home again — for allegedly violating a court order to stay away from the victim — and placed him under arrest a second time.
In the Texas case, 39-year-old Christopher Charles Perez was charged with a similar offence after he posted on Facebook that he had paid someone to spread the coronavirus at grocery stores in San Antonio because he wanted to deter people from visiting the stores.
The FBI investigated the case and determined that the threat was false, and no one had tried to spread the coronavirus at the stores. Perez was arrested on Tuesday.
Both Perez and Curry remained in federal custody on Wednesday, and it was not immediately clear if either had an attorney to comment on the allegations.