(Aug. 13, 2020) On June 2, 2020, a Danish appeals court, the Western High Court (Vestre Landsret), convicted a man for coughing on and screaming “corona” at a police officer, ruling that these actions when done together constituted a threat of violence under the Danish Criminal Code. (Vestre Landsret, Case No. V.L. S-0831-20, U.2020.2985-2899, June 2, 2020; § 119, stk. 1 Straffeloven (LBK nr 976 af 17/09/2019).)
Under article 119 of the Danish Criminal Code, threatening police with physical violence is a crime and punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment.
Background to the Case
In March 2020, a police officer in Aarhus pulled a car over for a routine traffic stop. The defendant—a passenger in the car—proceeded to jump out of the car and, seemingly unprovoked, began coughing at the officer within one to two feet of the officer’s face and screaming “corona.” The defendant later claimed in court that he had done this because he was intoxicated.
The issue before the court was whether repeatedly screaming “corona” and coughing within one to two feet of a police officer’s face taken together constituted a criminal threat of violence under the Danish Criminal Code.
Court of First Instance
The lower court found that coughing at a police officer (even if the person coughing was infected with COVID-19) did not constitute violence towards a police officer and therefore acquitted the defendant.
Appellate Court Decision
Reversing the lower court’s verdict with respect to the threat of violence, the appellate court held that intentionally infecting another person with COVID-19 conforms to the definition of violence in the criminal code, noting that such an infection could lead to hospitalization. The court found that the act of coughing does not alone constitute an act or threat of violence, but the defendant’s repeatedly and purposefully coughing within one to two feet of the police officer while screaming “corona” did. The fact that the defendant was not a carrier of the coronavirus was immaterial to the question of whether the acts qualified as a threat of violence.
The man was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, which also included 30 days of imprisonment for fleeing the scene to evade arrest. Thus, threatening to infect a police officer with coronavirus by coughing on the officer was valued at two months of imprisonment. Today, the same actions could result in a harsher punishment and longer imprisonment because legislation specifically allowing for the doubling of sentences for crimes related to COVID-19 entered into force in April, following the acts committed in this case. (Lov om ændring af straffeloven, retsplejeloven og udlændingeloven (LOV nr 349 af 02/04/2020).)
The verdict may be appealed to the Danish Supreme Court, but the defendant must first be granted leave to appeal by the independent Appeals Permission Board. Such leave is granted only when the case is of general importance and special circumstances apply. (§ 392 Retsplejeloven (LBK nr 938 af 10/09/2019).)