The situation caused by the COVID-19 continues to generate all sorts of legal consequences. One of the latest angles to be given wide publicity is the rising number of incidents involving assaults carried out by individuals who claim to be infected with the virus.
Several innocent members of the public – whether they be private individuals, shop workers, Police officers or National Health Service staff – have experienced confrontations with extremely anti-social individuals who have threatened to cough over them or spit on them.
One such incident occurred at the weekend, which was reported by BBC Scotland (see below):
Assault in Scotland is generally treated as a common law offence. It would involve a physical attack (or an attempted attack) on another person. Threats issued by a person to a victim would also constitute an assault if these put the victim into a state of fear and alarm.
In relation to the above incident, the clear intention of the teenager (even if he was completely healthy) was to put the healthcare worker into a state of fear and alarm. Hopefully, the victim will remain completely healthy and free of viral symptoms.
This is not, however, the point: her attacker clearly had the mens rea (the guilty mind) and he followed this through with the actus reus (the wrongful act). If there are witnesses and other evidence which can corroborate the incident, then the Police may have grounds to charge her attacker with assault.
If the criminal investigation proceeds to this stage, it will then be for the Procurator Fiscal (the local prosecutor) to determine whether there is enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against the accused.
The Lord Advocate, James Wolfe QC has issued a statement in relation to assaults on key workers:
“The Crown has a range of responses available to tackle unacceptable criminal conduct that may arise during the coronavirus pandemic. Any person who deliberately endangers life, or spreads fear and alarm by pretending to do so, will be dealt with robustly. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling case for prosecution in the public interest.”
Although assault is generally considered to be a common law offence, we should be mindful of the provisions of Section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 which creates the statutory offence of assaulting or impeding the Police in the discharge of their duties. If an accused is successfully convicted of an offence in terms of Section 90, they may face a maximum prison sentence of 12 months and/or the imposition of a fine.
In England and Wales, a different approach is taken to assault: it is regarded as a statutory offence in terms of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales has stated that attacks on emergency workers may result in a prison sentence of two years being imposed should the accused (the defendant) be found guilty of such an assault (as per Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
Links to stories on the Sky News website about the rise of this type of criminal offence can be found below:
In the United States of America, incidents such as the above have more serious consequences: COVID-19 is classified as a ‘biological agent’. Attempts to spread or threats to spread the virus are treated as a terrorist offence (see below):
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 March; 6 & 11 April 2020