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Utah lawmakers consider making intentionally coughing on officers a crime

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Police cars are parked outside of the David P. Romrell Public Safety Building in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah lawmakers want to make it a crime to intentionally cough on a first responder or correctional worker while they are on the duty.

But others say it would be difficult to determine the intent of a bodily function that has mostly been considered involuntary.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said the law already covers exposure to bodily fluids, but she wants to add coughing because people have “aggressively” coughed on police officers claiming they have the coronavirus.

The proposed law would include exposure to “airborne droplets of another individual who is infected with COVID-19 or another infectious disease that may cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.”

“This is pandemic related. It is infectious disease related,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who along with Mayne is sponsoring the legislation.

Hutchings said the intent of the law is to ensure someone is not using a cough as a “weapon” to disrupt law enforcement.

“Let’s say we were protesting and we decided we wanted we really wanted cause issues, you just start coughing on everybody intentionally. If the have to all go quarantine, you could take out hundreds of first responders in a night if you wanted to,” he said.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said a teenager police took into custody recently spit at and coughed on a sergeant and four officers while claiming to be infected with the coronavirus. All of them had to be taken off the street to be tested and isolated

“It usually takes out four or five officers at a time, half a squad,” he said.

Brown, however, couldn’t say if any officers have become infected with COVID-19 as a result of being coughed on. But, he said, whether infected or not, the quarantine is the same.

As originally proposed Tuesday at the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee meeting, the bill makes it a class B misdemeanor to intentionally direct a cough at a public safety worker who is on the job. It would become a class A misdemeanor if the person is infected with the virus and knows he or she is infected.

Members of the committee, however, removed that section from the bill before voting to move it to the full Legislature for consideration in a special session Thursday.

Hutchings and Mayne said they would work through the language in the bill before it reaches the floor for a vote.

“This goes into a whole new territory that we haven’t been in, and that is a body function that is largely involuntary,” said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan.

Coleman said people can make themselves cough, but coughing is mostly involuntary. She said determining whether a cough is intentional is “highly subjective” and judgment call on the part of a first responder.

“We don’t even have a demonstrable risk. I think that if this was a serious enough concern, our chiefs would probably know right off their head how many people have actually suffered illness for this type of contraction,” she said. “We’re having a response to a situation where we have either no data or data that might contradict the level of response this bill is seeking.”

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, said the “bottom line is we’re criminalizing coughs. It has nothing to do with COVID.”

Miles said the law should criminalize the act of disrupting law enforcement, not coughing.

West Bountiful Police Chief Todd Hixon, vice president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, said it’s likely every police department in the state has officers who have been spit on or coughed on by someone claiming to have the coronavirus.

In Millard County, a woman upset that she was being arrested in a domestic violence case coughed on two deputies while claiming she had COVID-19, police say.

As deputies attempted to place a seat belt on the woman inside the patrol car, she “began coughing and saying, ‘I hope I have the COVID’ and then appeared to intentionally cough again directly toward (the arresting officer),” police wrote in a report.

West Jordan police arrested a man accused of telling an officer he might have the coronavirus, then turning and intentionally coughing numerous times in that officer’s face.

While the officer was searching the man, who was drunk, and placing him under arrest, he said, “I might have the coronavirus,” then “pulled the bandana covering his mouth down with his chin, turned toward me, and intentionally coughed in my face,” the officer wrote.

Under current law, a public safety worker who is exposed to someone’s bodily fluids must obtain a court order to have the person tested for an infectious disease, typically through a blood draw. The proposed law would add a nasal swab as means of testing for COVID-19.

The bill’s sponsor say some people who oppose the bill mistakenly believe it requires first responders and members of public to be tested.

“It’s just simply in a case where somebody either says they’re trying to get you sick or is doing it in a way to make you afraid for your life or your health,” Hutchings said.