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Officials concerned about offenders spitting on cops during pandemic

Nassau police arrest a suspect in early April.

Nassau police arrest a suspect in early April. Credit: Jim Staubitser

Two Long Island suspects who spit on Nassau police during recent encounters with officers face assault charges, prompting outrage from police brass who are concerned such acts are potentially lethal during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“That is disgusting and that is intentional assault,” Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said. “When you spit on someone or cough in their face, you put the officer at risk and you put their families at risk.”

A 38-year-old Elmont woman, Nassau police said, told officers who responded  to a call about a landlord-tenant dispute on April 8 that she was infected with COVID-19. The woman, who had allegedly been spitting on doorknobs at the residence, spit repeatedly on officers and kicked one cop in the face, police said. She was charged with second-degree assault with intent to injure an officer and obstructing governmental administration. 

A 19-year-old Freeport man spit in a police officer’s face after a traffic stop on Hillside Avenue in Bellmore on March 21, officials said. The suspect was charged with second-degree assault with intent to injure an officer, driving while ability impaired and other charges. It was unclear if he tested positive for the coronavirus.

Like dozens of other coronavirus-infected suspects around the country, the Nassau defendants may have believed such acts will drive away police, federal criminal defense attorney Nick Oberheiden said. But law enforcement officials consider such behavior criminal acts that deserve stiff charges and prison sentences.

Federal law-enforcement officials are taking a hard line on suspects who intentionally spread the coronavirus, according to a memo issued by Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen last month. The memo said such suspects could face criminal charges under federal terrorism laws.

“They could be charged with a terroristic act,” said Oberheiden, who represents clients in New York’s Southern District and Eastern District. “These are not intelligent criminals looking for an advantage. These are really stupid comments and actions.” 

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Suffolk police have not been the targets of such acts, Commissioner Geraldine Hart said, but the department issued a legal bulletin to officers warning them that suspects may attempt to evade arrest this way. Suspects who spit on officers, according to the memo, could be charged with attempted assault or reckless endangerment. 

“They have so much on their shoulders right now,” Hart said. “We wanted to make sure officers know about all the tools in the toolbox.”

A spokeswoman for the NYPD said the department does not track spitting attacks on its officers, but that anyone who engaged in that type of behavior could be charged with assaulting a police officer. There have been numerous media reports about such attacks in New York City. 

A state lawmaker from Long Island has introduced legislation that would make it a crime to intentionally expose another person to an infectious disease, punishable by up to four years.

Assemb. Michael LiPetri (R-South Farmingdale) said he was motivated to introduce the bill after hearing about saliva-spraying suspects from cops, firefighters and other first responders on the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic. 

“They put their lives on the line to protect the public health and I want to send a message that such behavior will not be tolerated,” LiPetri said. 

“If you willingly expose law-enforcement or healthcare workers,” LiPetri said, “you should be held accountable.”

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