Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. A version of this story originally appeared in our free weekly newsletter.
A bill moving through the Pennsylvania legislature that would criminalize spitting on a police officer is partially predicated on junk science, and public health experts warn it could harshly punish people who are sick with as little as a common cold.
Anyone who knowingly has a communicable disease and spits or throws feces, urine, or other bodily fluids on law enforcement could face up to seven years in prison under the measure introduced by Rep. Lou Schmitt (R., Blair). The penalty would be lower for people without an illness.
Currently, spitting on any person can be charged as a summary offense or misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, and Schmitt said his bill offers added protection for police. He fought back against Democratic attempts to limit the scope to only include on-duty officers and to exclude protesters who accidentally spit.
Similar bills have been adopted in other states, where people who are HIV positive have been sentenced to serve more than a decade for spitting on an officer.
The language of Schmitt’s bill is a carbon copy of a Pennsylvania law from the 1990s that makes it a felony for inmates to spit on another person if they are known to have a communicable disease.
“They were lazy,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “They just duplicated the assault by prisoner statute.”
The law and Schmitt’s bill name HIV and hepatitis B as two examples, even though those viruses can’t be transmitted through saliva.
“The fact that this passed the ‘laugh test’ by the sponsors and cosponsors is evidence that there is an urgent need for public health officials to step in and do training on the roots of transmission of infectious diseases,” said Catherine Hanssens, executive director and founder of the Center for HIV Law and Policy in Brooklyn. “It’s kinda indefensible.”
Schmitt, the main sponsor of the bill, admitted to copying the language from the ’90s law, which he said may be outdated.
“I’ve already agreed that the reference to HIV … should be removed,” he said. “It not only stigmatizes HIV, it criminalizes it.”
But a closer look at Schmitt’s bill, which passed the state House 146-56 last week, shows the language could end up being used for people with more common viruses such as the flu or even a cold.
“This bill is remarkably vague,” said Robert Field, a law professor who specializes in public health at Drexel University. “You’re essentially criminalizing being sick.”
Schmitt said the bill’s tougher penalties would deter people from spitting on police officers in the first place. Asked for evidence that harsher penalties have deterred crime, Schmitt said he did not have “any empirical evidence at all that it would deter,” adding, “I don’t know.”
That lack of research has at least one representative calling foul on the bill, saying it’s just another way for district attorneys to stack charges against people and possibly give police more authority in enforcing laws disproportionately against people of color and protesters.
“This is an evidence-free bill that does not protect law enforcement,” Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) said. “There’s no proof ever that this has been a deterrent. If it did, the death penalty would have ended violent crime decades ago.”
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