Letter to the Editor: Could Your COVID-19 Attitude Be Criminal?

Early in the pandemic, most people willingly limited their contacts. Then it began to wear on them, and they started taking risks: shopping, meeting people in ever-larger groups. By the summer, it was life as usual, and mask wearing had become a political statement, not a public-health measure.

Such behavior is irresponsible and dangerous, but could it also be criminal? I’ve been thinking about this because my husband is a health care provider, and with COVID-19 out of control because of people’s behavior, I checked out possible consequences of that reckless behavior if it sickened or killed someone. 

Wisconsin statutes say the crime of battery is committed when one “causes bodily harm to another by an act done with intent to cause bodily harm to that person or another without the consent of the person harmed.” Bodily harm includes physical illness. 

Going out in public knowing you’re COVID-19-positive could fit the elements of battery, punishable by up to nine months jail. It’s a rare individual who would purposely infect another with COVID-19 without consent, but analogously, this happened with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and there were some successful criminal prosecutions.

Other more likely crimes include reckless homicide, recklessly endangering safety and reckless injury. Recklessly endangering safety is committed by one who endangers the safety of another by “criminally reckless conduct”: the conduct created a risk of death or great bodily harm; the risk of death or great bodily harm was unreasonable and substantial; and the defendant was aware the conduct created the unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm. If death were to result, it could be a reckless homicide.

Could a COVID-19-infected person who is having contact with at-risk individuals meet the criteria for these felonies? Think about the consequences of your behavior. Decide whether your fun is more important than another’s life. Think about health care providers whom you endanger: nurses, doctors, housekeepers and all those who are necessary to staff health care facilities. They can’t help you if they’re sick.

Joan Korb

Egg Harbor, Wisconsin