A federal jury has sentenced a Texas man to 15 months in federal prison after finding him guilty of staging a COVID-19-related hoax on social media, prosecutors said.
Christopher Charles Perez, 40, was arrested in April 2020 after posting two “threatening messages” on Facebook claiming he had paid someone infected with the virus “to lick items at grocery stores in the San Antonio area to scare people away,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Texas said in a news release Monday.
“My homeboys cousin has covid19 and has licked every thing for past 2 days cause we paid him to,” Perez wrote on Facebook, according to court documents. “Big difference is we told him not to be these (expletive) idiots who record and post online … YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.”
Perez was found guilty of two counts of violating a federal law that makes it a crime to carry out a hoax involving biological weapons, in this case, COVID-19. The crime can be punished with up to a life sentence if it results in the loss of life.
Perez said he was attempting to deter people from visiting stores to prevent the spread of the virus, according to court documents. His attorney, Alfredo R. Villarreal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The posts were made at a time when COVID-19 had just begun widely spreading in the United States. Both the public and medical community were only beginning to understand how the virus spread and the massive impact it would have on daily life, prompting widespread fear and anxiety.
Authorities said the ruling underscores that hoaxes related to COVID-19 will be taken seriously.
“Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter,” said U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff, according to court documents. “This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.”
In addition to the prison sentence, Perez will have to pay a $1,000 fine.
On April 5, 2020, the Southwest Texas Fusion Center, a group of law enforcement agencies that investigates possible terrorist activity and threats against the public, received an online tip with a screenshot of Perez’s post. The FBI office in San Antonio then began to investigate, according to court documents.
The threat turned out to be false, with investigators saying Perez admitted to lying about paying someone to intentionally spread the virus at grocery stores. He was convicted in June.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has tracked misinformation related to COVID-19 online, said Perez’s case is “a good example that what you do on social media has real life consequences, and also that what you do on social media is not freedom of speech.”
Jens David Ohlin, dean of Cornell Law School, said most cases involving the spread of misinformation on social media are protected by the First Amendment, and thus, would not fall under the statute used to charge Perez. His case is distinct because it contained a direct threat of harm involving a biological weapon.
“It is not a crime to lie in general, however pernicious it is,” he said.
Ahmed said that during the pandemic, researchers have noticed a pattern of “extremists treating and using COVID-19” as a biological weapon.
In April 2020, an 18-year-old woman was taken into custody by the Carrollton Police Department in Texas for allegedly claiming in a Snapchat that she was intentionally spreading the coronavirus. She was charged with making a terroristic threat, according to the police.
The following month, James Jamal Curry, of St. Petersburg, Florida, was indicted on a biological weapon hoax charge after prosecutors said he coughed on an officer and declared he was infected with the virus.