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Spreading the common cold doesn’t carry criminal consequences. But intentional or reckless behavior that spreads a disease with serious public health consequences—such as HIV, SARS, Ebola, or COVID-19—can result in criminal charges.
A majority of states have communicable disease laws that make it a crime to expose another person to a contagious disease on purpose.
Criminal communicable disease laws typically focus on infectious diseases with serious public health implications that spread through contact with an infected person’s blood, saliva, mucus, or other bodily fluids. Some states have laws that are specific to a particular disease, like HIV, or a category of diseases, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Other states have laws that address communicable diseases generally. These laws and their punishments differ significantly among states.
In most states, people can face criminal prosecution for spreading a communicable disease if they intentionally or recklessly expose others to the disease. For example, it can be a crime to:
have sex or share needles without disclosing to your partner that you have HIV or an STI
donate blood or organs when you know you have an infectious disease like HIV or hepatitis C,
intentionally expose another person to a communicable disease to harass or threaten the person (for example, by spitting in the face of a police officer while claiming to have the coronavirus).