Don't yell COVID in a crowded supermarket
A federal judge in Texas sentenced Christopher Charles Perez to 15 months in prison for posting on Facebook that he had paid someone to spread COVID-19 in a San Antonio H-E-B supermarket, as part of a hoax in the jittery early days of the pandemic.
"My homeboys cousin has covid19 and has licked everything for past 2 days cause we paid him too," Perez wrote on April, 5, 2020, 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." That post stayed up only 16 minutes, but someone took a screenshot and sent it to a law enforcement network called the Southwest Texas Fusion Center. Perez then posted a link to a news article about a supermarket forced to close due to an infected employee. "Lol, I did try to warn y'all," his post said. "Nogalitos location next."
In June, a federal jury found Perez, 40, guilty of disseminating false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons. The federal judge sentenced him on Monday, and Perez's lawyer, Alfredo Villarreal, filed notice Wednesday that he will appeal the verdict to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Federal sentencing guidelines had recommended 15 to 21 months in prison based on the offense and Perez's unspecified criminal history, a federal court official told The New York Times.
"Perez's actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today's sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime," FBI special agent Christopher Combs said in a statement. U.S. Attorney Ashely Hoff added that "trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter." Villarreal argued in a court motion in June that Perez "either meant it purely as a joke or, at worst, intended that people take the pandemic more seriously."
"I'm sure the judge was intending to send a message to people who would be involved in like hoaxes, which is important," Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School lecturer and former federal judge, told the Times. "The question is whether he needed to impose a sentence of this length to send that message." She said before federal sentencing guidelines were introduced in 1987, crimes like Perez's would likely have earned probation.