Pennsylvania prosecutors have charged Margaret Cirko, 35, who recently coughed and spit on produce at a store — resulting in Gerrity’s Supermarket throwing out $35,000 of fruits and vegetables. We are seeing the expanding use of terrorism charges against such pranks and displays. The Justice Department is now joining local prosecutors in pledging to bring more terrorism charges against pranksters and intentional spreaders of the virus. However, these cases raise concerns over such charges and the complexity of some of these cases.
Cirko has been charged with felony counts of terrorist threats, threats to use a “biological agent’ and criminal mischief. However, this was also described as a prank by someone with suspected mental illness and someone who had been a long problem in the neighborhood. Treating such cases as terrorism will certainly create a deterrent but it can also ignore the motivation as well as the mental state of these actors.
The bizarre conduct of Cirko raises significant question over her mental state. She reportedly entered the store, threatened staff and intentionally coughed and spit on produce. She then tried to steal a 12-pack of beer. She is not believed to have coronavirus.
My concern is that the intent behind these acts are often to fulfill a dare or a manifestation of mental illness, not terroristic motives. This remains fortunately quite rare. The question is whether we want to radically expand the scope of terrorism provisions.