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Crime Prison, hefty fines await suspects who cough, spit on cops to spread coronavirus

18:16  09 april  2020
18:16  09 april  2020 Source:   northjersey.com

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New Jersey’s coronavirus outbreak was in its infancy on March 14 when three River Edge police officers responded to a Summit Avenue apartment to quell a domestic dispute.

a motorcycle parked on the side of a building: Passaic firefighter Israel Tolentino, 33 who passed away from complications of COVID-19, was laid to rest at East RidgeLawn Cemetery on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Motorcycle police officers wait outside of Marrocco Funeral home in Passaic to escort the funeral procession the cemetery. © AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK Passaic firefighter Israel Tolentino, 33 who passed away from complications of COVID-19, was laid to rest at East RidgeLawn Cemetery on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Motorcycle police officers wait outside of Marrocco Funeral home in Passaic to escort the funeral procession the cemetery.

They arrived at about 11:15 a.m. and asked Marina Bishara-Rhone, 25, to step outside and talk, said borough Police Chief Tom Cariddi. That's when Bishara-Rhone walked by one of the officers, turned and coughed in his face, Cariddi said.

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She then smiled and said she had a fever and cough – the symptoms of coronavirus, the chief said. The officer was not wearing a mask or gloves because the virus had not yet spread through the state. Gov. Phil Murphy’s social distancing order was still two days away.

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In the past, Bishara-Rhone would have been charged with throwing bodily fluid at an officer, a relatively minor offense. But as the coronavirus pandemic rages and the number of similar incidents rises, the state Attorney General’s Office has stepped in and tacked on a second-degree felony charge that could jail people like Bishara-Rhone for five to 10 years.

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It’s a drastic step, but Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said on Wednesday that his office is meeting a serious crime with serious charges.

“We must deter others from engaging in this behavior, which at a minimum seeks to spread fear and, at a maximum, risks infecting others, including our police officers, with a virus that can be deadly,” he said. At least two police officers have tested positive for COVID-19 after suspects coughed or spat on them, he added.

Throughout the state, at least a half-dozen other suspects face the same charge – terroristic threats during an emergency – and the same chance of prison and a $150,000 fine for the same act. Authorities said each suspect claimed to have the virus, which brings a fever, dry cough, shortness of breath and other symptoms.

Sughuy Cepeda, 43, of Teaneck, was charged with coughing and spitting on Englewood police officers and will answer charges in state Superior Court along with other suspects, the attorney general said. 

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Dealing with angry suspects fighting, spitting or otherwise resisting is nothing new, law enforcement experts said. But the threat of such serious penalties could dissuade people from joining in what Elie Honig, a former state and federal prosecutor who now heads the Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities, called the disturbing trend of using the coronavirus as a chemical weapon.

“There’s absolutely a deterrence angle to it, and that’s perfectly legitimate,” Honig said. “This is just one more thing police officers will need to be aware of in approaching and dealing with people. And it’s one more danger they face.”

a man sitting at a desk in front of a window: The New Jersey Regional Operations & Intelligence Center at NJ State Police Headquarters where state agencies monitor and plan responses to occurrences including the COVID19 pandemic. © Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network The New Jersey Regional Operations & Intelligence Center at NJ State Police Headquarters where state agencies monitor and plan responses to occurrences including the COVID19 pandemic.

But while law enforcement officials applauded Grewal’s initiative, one expert said he must now follow through in court or risk losing leverage during the next state of emergency.

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“If we’re going to go this far … when this is all over, you can’t be dropping these charges,” said Brian Higgins, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and the former chief of the Bergen County Police Department. “If you show leniency … the next time this happens, it’s going to have no impact.”

The pandemic has been hard on police, who have struggled to keep up with the new responsibilities heaped on them by Murphy's many executive orders while dealing with staffing shortages created by officers who have to self isolate or have been infected by the virus.

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New Jersey had 47,437 cases as of April 8. And while the growth rate is slowing, the number of new cases is still rising, the governor said. 

More than 7,000 patients remain hospitalized, and more than 1,500 of those are in intensive care and on ventilators. About 1,504 people have died from complications of coronavirus.

State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan said Tuesday that 562 New Jersey police officers have tested positive for the virus, and nearly 3,000 of the state's 36,000 police officers are in self-quarantine.

Despite the dire numbers, things somehow worked out for the River Edge officer, whose name the department withheld for medical reasons.

He went into a precautionary two-week quarantine but did not contract COVID-19 because Bishara-Rhone did not have it, Cariddi said. He has returned to work and is back on the road.

Still, the situation could have ended differently. And that weighs on the chief.

“Our job is difficult enough under these circumstances without having the added concerns of an intentional infection,” he said.

Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: janoski@northjersey.com Twitter: @stevejanoski 

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Prison, hefty fines await suspects who cough, spit on cops to spread coronavirus

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