Prosecutors across the country this week opened up a two-pronged battle against coronavirus, filing the first criminal charges against people falsely claiming to have the deadly virus while also probing claims of price gouging on desperately needed supplies.
Charges were filed separately in New Jersey, Texas and New Hampshire against individuals who falsely claimed they had the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
Lea Piazza, 28, of Wayne, New Jersey was charged with causing a false public alarm last week for coughing on police officers and then telling them she was infected with the coronavirus.
Police arrested Ms. Piazza following a single-car crash in which she was suspected of driving while intoxicated, Hanover Police said Wednesday.
While being processed on March 12, Ms. Piazza purposely coughed on the two officers and said, “Oh, by the way, I have the coronavirus and so do you now,” according to the department.
Her actions prompted the department to notify local health officials and self-quarantine the officers.
An investigation concluded that her comments were “100% false,” the Hanover Police said.
“We are not a big department and if we lose three guys for a period of time, that has a big impact because we lose almost 10% of our force,” Hanover Police Capt. Dave White told The Washington Times. “That is a big hit for a small town.”
Ms. Piazza was charged with driving while intoxicated, careless driving, reckless driving and refusal to take a breath test. She faces additional charges of causing a false public alarm for her coronavirus claims.
In Tyler County Texas, Michael Lane Brandin, 23, was charged with false alarm/false report after he claimed on social media he had tested positive for COVID-19 at a local hospital, the Tyler County District Attorney’s Office said.
Prosecutors said Mr. Brandin made “the post as a social experiment” to make the point “you cannot believe everything you view online.”
In Lebanon, New Hampshire, police charged a man who announced he had COVID-19 while riding on a public bus.
David Ladeau, 65, of Hartford, Vermont, faces charges of false public alarm and disorderly conduct for the bus stunt.
Police are encouraging people to use common sense.
“Don’t play games because it is not good for anyone,” said Capt. White. “We have to follow all these accusations to make sure they are not true, but if they are true, we are going to have to deal with that as well.”
Meanwhile, reports of retailers jacking up prices for face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and other coronavirus-related products are flooding the offices of state attorneys general.
State and federal laws prohibit retailers from raising prices by more than 10% during a state of emergency.
In New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued 13 subpoenas and more than 80 warning letters to people suspected of illegally hiking prices amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Grewal said the number of price-gouging complaints has exceeded 600, more than twice the number of complaints from March 12, when the tally stood at 270.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a cease-and-desist letter to home improvement retailer Menards, calling its actions “unconscionable.”
Ms. Nessel accused Menards — one of the state’s largest retailers — of jacking up prices on bleach and face masks during the pandemic.
Investigators said Menards “essentially doubled the price on some cleaning products,” noting a two-pack of face masks was selling for $39.95, according to her letter.
A spokesman for Menards said its prices were “reasonable.”
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said his office is probing more than 71 reports of retailers trying to line their pockets.
He has fielded complaints from a resident who was charged nearly $40 for a 30-pack of toilet paper and another who said they paid more than $25 for hand sanitizer that normally retails for roughly $10.
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia on Wednesday announced his office would create a COVID-19 pandemic fraud coordinator who will investigate and prosecute federal cases of price gouging.
A bipartisan group of House Judiciary Committee members also demanded Attorney General William P. Barr take more aggressive steps at the federal level.
“It is critical that the DOJ play a central role in ensuring that consumers have access to the items they need to protect themselves, their families and their communities,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Mr. Barr.
Mr. Barr has urged U.S. attorneys across the country to vigorously prosecute retailers taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic, and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated,” he wrote in a memorandum.