Washington — The Justice Department gave federal law enforcement officers across the country the green light to use U.S. anti-terrorism laws to investigate and prosecute people who attempt or threaten to intentionally infect others with the coronavirus.
In a memo to the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys and the heads of federal law enforcement agencies on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen detailed the tools available to crack down on intentional spreading of the virus, as well as a slew of other crimes related to the pandemic.
"[Y]ou may encounter criminal activity ranging from malicious hoaxes, to threats targeting specific individuals or the general public, to the purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19," Rosen wrote, referring to the disease caused by the virus. "Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a 'biological agent' under [federal law], such acts potentially could implicate the Nation's terrorism-related statutes."
Rosen said U.S. Attorney's Offices have already received reports of "individuals and businesses engaging in a wide range of fraudulent and criminal activities," including "threats to intentionally infect other people."
"Threats or attempts to useas a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated," he wrote.
Civil liberties advocates were alarmed at the prospect of using anti-terror statutes against those who might intentionally spread the virus.
"The Department of Justice should not be sending such a counterproductive and harmful message as the nation responds to this pandemic," said Hina Shamsi, a director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
To date, no one has faced federal charges for threatening or attempting to infect others, but the Justice Department has taken action in other areas related to the outbreak. On Sunday, the department obtained a temporary restraining order to shut down a website selling what it claimed was a vaccine for the coronavirus. No such vaccine exists.
Rosen's memo also advised federal authorities to work in concert with state and local law enforcement agencies in pursuing coronavirus-related cases, and at least one jurisdiction has already begun enforcing its state's anti-terrorism laws.
A 26-year-old man in Missouri faces one charge of making a terrorist threat after posting a video to TikTok that showed him licking sticks of deodorants in a Walmart aisle. "Who's scared of coronavirus?" Cody Pfister says in the video. The court's docket indicates he was arrested on Tuesday.
Patrick Coyne, an attorney for Pfister, told CBS News his client took the video on March 10, before the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic and widespread restrictions on public events took effect.
"These are challenging and quickly evolving times. Public conduct that was immature on March 10 looks completely differently through the lens of today," Coyne said. "Everything has changed at warp speed, but that should not work retroactively and convert a tasteless and impulsive act into a criminal terrorist threat."
Earlier this week, Attorney General William Barr announced U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito of New Jersey would be leading the department's nationwide task force to address all crimes related to the coronavirus crisis, including price gouging, fraud and hoarding.
"At the Department of Justice, we're working hard to protect the health and safety of our personnel, while at the same time keeping our enforcement efforts at full throttle," Barr said at a briefing with the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Monday.
Barr detailed how a new executive order signed by President Trump is designed to discourage the hoarding of medical and health supplies, which could endanger patients and providers who need the equipment.
"if you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about," Barr said. "But if you are sitting in a warehouse with masks, surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door."