A Florida man has been hit with federal bioterrorism hoax charges because he coughed and spit on police officers while falsely claiming to be infected with the coronavirus. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
On Thursday the Department of Justice announced that a federal grand jury in Tampa, Florida, had returned an indictment of 31-year-old James Jamal Curry for "perpetrating a biological weapon hoax."
The charges stretch back to a late March incident when St. Petersburg police arrested Curry for felony domestic battery and false imprisonment charges after he allegedly hit his then-girlfriend in their apartment.
While being searched during that arrest, Curry told officers he had coronavirus and then coughed in their direction, according to an FBI affidavit. He posted bail the next day but was arrested that same evening for going over to his girlfriend's house in violation of a no-contact order.
The FBI affidavit says that when St. Petersburg police tried to arrest him a second time, Curry struggled with police officers before spitting into one of their mouths and saying "I have corona, bitch, and I'm spreading it around."
Curry was later tested for the coronavirus. The test came back negative.
In early April, following an FBI investigation, the Department of Justice filed a criminal complaint against Curry on terrorism hoax charges, reasoning that because the COVID-19 disease caused by coronavirus was "a virus capable of causing death," it met the federal definition of a "biological agent." Because Curry lied about having this deadly virus, he was therefore guilty of a bioweapons hoax.
The grand jury decision Thursday means the case against Curry can go forward.
If the information in the affidavit about Curry is true, he's a bad guy and should be punished under normal state criminal laws.
But the terrorism hoax charges are a ridiculous overreach. The circumstances of his case couldn't have less to do with the reason Congress passed the first federal law against terrorism hoaxes back in 2004.
That year, the Stop Terrorist and Military Hoaxes Act was passed as part of a major defense and intelligence reform bill. The intention behind the legislation was to crack down on people calling in fake terrorist threats in the wake of 9/11.
"Since September 11, hoaxes have seriously disrupted people's lives and needlessly diverted law-enforcement and emergency-services resources," the Justice Department explained in congressional testimony at the time, pointing specifically to fake anthrax attacks.
Curry's claims do not seem to have caused any community panic or to have diverted law enforcement resources, with the possible exception of police testing him for COVID-19. And given how jails across the country have become hotspots of the disease, it should frankly be standard practice to test inmates for it.
If the letter of the anti-hoax law can be stretched to apply to Curry's case, that suggests the law is overbroad and needs to be pared back.