Sarah Leamon: Officials can rely on criminal laws in pandemic to punish knuckleheads who risk others' lives

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      Social distancing and self-isolation mandates have become our new normal. But while the vast majority of us have been voluntarily complying health mandates to help slow down the spread of COVID-19, not everyone has been cooperative. 

      Since the introduction of these measures, there have been numerous reports about people failing to comply, either through ignorance or intention. 

      From gathering in public areas to playing contact sports, some of us just haven’t been getting the message.

      In addition, there have been troubling reports of large weddings throughout the Lower Mainland, which continued well into March, in spite of provincial bans against gatherings greater than 50. Others have continued going to church, funerals, and other community events. 

      And then there’s the more troublesome incidents, including reports of people purposefully coughing on others, and licking or even spitting on common surfaces. 

      A recent report involved a man who was caught on camera spitting on an elevator console. This has become just one in a growing number of disturbing displays amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

      While most of the time, rule-breakers are an annoyance, the stakes are much higher this time around. Breaching social distancing and self-isolation mandates carries the very real possibility of harm. This type of behaviour could seriously compromise the health and safety of our communities. 

      The seriousness of the situation has many are wondering how we will continue to manage our new reality and what steps could be taken in terms of enforcement moving forward. 

      Up to this point, our health authorities have largely relied on decency and voluntary compliance in order to control the population and drive the message home. 

      On March 20, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry encouraged people to use social media to shame those who do not comply. Other public officials have urged those who are not taking the situation seriously to rethink their mindset. 

      When this failed to get everyone on board, bylaw enforcement kicked into high gear. 

      In addition to signs throughout the city, reminding citizens about their social distancing obligations, bylaw officers have been patrolling the city in greater numbers.

      Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth warned British Columbians that breaching public health orders could result in massive monetary fines, or even jail time. 

      The B.C. Public Health Act contemplates fines up to $25,000 or six months in jail as punishments for noncompliance. 

      But still, many have remained undeterred. As time wears on, other approaches will be necessary.  

      This man entered an elevator in a building near the Olympic Village and spat on the elevator buttons.
      Marie Hui Twitter

      South of the border, terrorism laws have kicked into high gear. 

      Deputy Attorney General Jeffery Rosen sent a memo to federal enforcement agencies advising them to make use of antiterror legislation to prosecute egregious cases of noncompliance. This has resulted in a very small number of people being charged for intentionally or maliciously attempting to  spread the virus.  

      However, it is unlikely that we will adopt the same approach here. 

      Canadian terrorism laws focus on intentional acts, which are committed in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose. 

      So, while it may be possible to theoretically devise a scenario under which a biological agent, such as COVID-19, could be weaponized for this purpose, the changes of this materializing are slim to none. 

      Terrorism laws are more or less inappropriate to capture the vast majority of social distancing offences.    

      More likely than not, our local authorities will make use of a more familiar tool to hold some of the worst offenders accountable—criminal law. 

      After all, many of our existing criminal laws are well-suited to deal with COVID-19 transgressors. 

      For example, intentionally coughing or spitting on another person without consent falls under the wide definition of assault as contemplated by our Criminal Code. 

      Intentionally coughing or spitting on another person with the intent to transmit the virus is more serious still. It could lead to a charge of aggravated assault, which carries stiffer penalties and a greater possibility of jail. 

      Beyond offences against other people, criminal law may also be used to deal with novel property crimes in the wake of COVID-19. 

      Interfering with public goods—for example, licking or coughing on items in a public place—could amount to mischief, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail on indictment. 

      An act of mischief which causes an actual danger to life can see a person serve a life sentence. 

      Clearly, this is no laughing matter. 

      And while some charges have already started rolling in—including a recent incident in Kelowna, where a man is charged with aggravated assault after allegedly spitting on police—we hope that these incidents will be few and far between. 

      But, the sad reality is that there will always be outliers and bad actors in any given scenario. 

      The sooner we take a strong stance against such behaviour, the more quickly our communities will be safe again.