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How can coughing on someone lead to criminal charges?

The headlines are often full of strange and scary stories. Some of the strangest are about people charged with crimes for weird behaviors, such as a man coughing on people in a threatening manner.

That was recently the case when a man was charged with assault for coughing on two medical center staff members in another state. According to the report, he told them their protective masks weren’t going to help them. Then he coughed on them to spread whatever contagions he may have had. The man’s behavior was strange, but the strangeness of the arrest may have also owed to the widespread confusion about assault and battery.

The difference between assault and battery

The laws for assault and battery differ from state to state, but the same general principle holds across most:

  • Battery refers to hostile or harmful physical contact
  • Assault refers to the threat of physical harm

Interestingly, there’s no crime of assault in the Indiana criminal code. Instead, the law separates the two types of behavior into charges of battery and intimidation. If prosecutors in another state would charge you with assault, you’d likely face charges of intimidation in Indiana.

One of the more important things to remember about intimidation is that it doesn’t require contact. Intimidation only requires that someone threatens another person to:

  • Try to get them to act against their will
  • Make them fear retaliation for actions that didn’t previously break the law
  • Get them to leave or stay out of a building or vehicle

In Indiana, intimidation starts as a Class A misdemeanor, but it can quickly become a felony if:

  • The threat is to commit a forcible felony such as murder
  • The threat is made against officers of the law, school employees, ministers or certain other people
  • The threat involves a weapon

Again, you don’t need to fire your gun to face felony charges for intimidation. And the definition of “threat” goes beyond physical harm. Indiana also considers it a “threat” if you say you’ll expose someone to cruelty or falsely harm their credit or reputation.

Criminal charges are no joke

It may seem funny to hear or read about someone facing criminal charges for coughing. But it’s no joke. You could face battery charges for striking someone or intentionally thrusting waste or bodily fluids on someone. Even making an intentional threat about coughing your germs onto someone could lead to trouble. And the intent is a key part.

At Kammen & Moudy, our attorneys understand the difference between a bad joke and a real threat. We work hard to make sure the prosecution and jury will understand the difference, as well.

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