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Can a person who has or may have COVID-19 coronavirus be criminally responsible for infecting other people?

Yes, it is possible. 

Such a person may commit not only an offence (Article 116 of the Penal Code) but also a criminal offence of exposure to contagion (Article 161 § 2 of the Penal Code) and the offence of bringing about danger to the life or health of many people (Article 165 § 1 or § 2 of the Penal Code) for which there is even a sentence of imprisonment.

The criminal law assessment depends on the circumstances of the person and how that person is behaving.

Meetings with individuals

If a person knows that he or she has coronavirus and directly exposes another person to this disease, e.g. by meeting with that other person, he or she may be liable for a crime for which there is a fine, restriction of liberty or even imprisonment of up to one year. This is regulated by Article 161 § 2 of the Penal Code. In such a case, the victim, i.e. the person who was exposed to the infection (not necessarily infected), may submit a report on a justified suspicion of a crime together with a request for criminal prosecution.

Getting on a bus, tram or going to a shop, church or other place where there are or may be many people

If a person knows that he or she has a coronavirus or suspects that he or she may have it (e.g. is in quarantine, has symptoms) and brings danger to many people, e.g. by getting on a bus, train, subway, or entering a shop or other room or vehicle where many people are or may be in (it is assumed that many people means 10 or more), then they may be liable for the offence of bringing danger to the life or health of many people.

In such a case, it may criminally liable even if the person did so unintentionally because, for example, he or she thought that he or she might have coronavirus (because of direct contact with the infected person), and yet through his or her behaviour he or she exposed many people to the infection. This offence is regulated in Article 165 § 1 and § 2 of the Penal Code and is punishable by imprisonment from 6 months to 8 years if it is committed intentionally or by imprisonment for up to 3 years if it is committed unintentionally.

Breaking quarantine, escaping from hospital 

If a person knows that he or she is suffering from coronavirus and does not comply with quarantine or other orders and prohibitions, e.g. he or she is moving away from hospital or does not comply with other medical orders issued on the basis of the law, such a person is responsible for committing an offence for which he or she is liable to a fine (up to PLN 5,000) or a reprimand – Article 116 of the Code of Petty Offences.

All the above legal provisions are long-standing.

The case of police arrests in China

We are surprised to see how, in China, the equivalent of our police force, overpowers a person who wants to escape and who is suspected of having coronavirus. But we shouldn’t. Our laws provide for this possibility. The police have the right to detain a person if there is a reasonable suspicion that such a person has committed a crime and there is a risk of fleeing or hiding, or of hiding the evidence of the crime, or a risk of his or her identity being untraceable, but also in other circumstances. However, such detention may take place if the suspicion is justified, i.e. if, for example, the police know that the person has a coronavirus or has a suspicion that such a person may have it (due to imposed quarantine) and has entered the underground for example.

To sum up:

  1. If you know you have a coronavirus or suspect you have it and by your behaviour you are exposing other people to infection, you may be convicted of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment.
  2. Anyone who learns that a given person had a coronavirus and knew about it, and has met with such a person, having direct contact with that person, may notify the police about this fact and submit a motion for prosecution under Article 161 § 2 of the Criminal Code.
  3. Anyone who learns that a person had a coronavirus or that a person may have suspected having a coronavirus (e.g. quarantine), and exposed many people to the infection (at least 10 people), e.g. by getting on a bus, tram, train or going to church, may report this to the police and submit a notification of a justified suspicion of committing an offence under Article 165 § 1 or § 2 of the Criminal Code.
  4. The fine of PLN 5,000 for violation of the quarantine is therefore not the only punishment for the behaviour of a person who exposes others to coronavirus infection.

 

Beata Bieniek-Wiera, attorney-at-law

 

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