Is Coughing on People Assault?

Content Warning: post and comments have a lot of violence in ’em.

Says Johnson Catman over in Mano’s comments:

I would think that, at this time, if someone purposefully coughs or spits on you, that should be considered assault. Also, the one coughed or spat upon should be able to respond in self-defense.

I don’t have a strong opinion on that right now, even though I can easily imagine myself responding to these intentional coughing or spitting incidents by committing unequivocal assault. I have enough restraint that I never have assaulted a person, but I’ve felt the urge so strongly it burned. (I’ve wanted to pick up an old man and embed him in a plate glass display, back in my Walmart days.) I have heard in the past that spitting on somebody is already legally considered to be assault – coughing would surely not be covered by those laws, even if that’s true.

Any legal experts know the haps on this? I think our nation’s retail workers deserve to know. And deserve to wear brass knuckles, depending on the answer.


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    IANAL, but my understanding of “assault and battery” is that assault is putting someone in fear for their safety, whereas battery is for physical contact intended to harm. Of course the law will vary between jurisdictions. In the US, it’s state law that will deal with A&B, so you’ve got 50+ variants on statute and case law.

    If this close to correct, you can make the case that deliberately coughing or spitting on someone is assault.

  2. says

    In order to hit somebody, physical contact and close proximity are necessary. If somebody who has the virus spits on you, quickly running away and washing your hands/face are more likely to help prevent getting infected. A prolonged fistfight will only result in more physical contact.

    On the other hand, if an asshole who walks around spitting and coughing on people gets beaten up, the chances are that they won’t spit on anybody else afterwards.

  3. Jazzlet says

    I know that in the UK it is considered to be a crime, there is an awful case of a ticket inspector on the railway who was intentionally spat on by someone who said they had COVID-19, both she and her colleague got COVID-19 and she died. The police are treating it in the same way we treat people who intentionally infect others with HIV ie as actual assault

  4. Bruce says

    If one person fills a squirt gun with poison or acid or napalm liquid fuel, and then squirts it on another person, is this assault? If one person fills a device (maybe called a Taser) with electricity, and then gets close and sends the electricity into the second person so as to make them pass out without physically touching them, is that assault? If one person throws a bucket of gasoline on another person and then throws lit matches, is that assault?
    I can imagine different jurisdictions having different interpretations, especially before the law there gets settled. But if these became common activities directed against law or government people, I think a consensus would always form that these are indeed assault. The question of physical touching would no longer come up.
    When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, I don’t recall hearing of anyone saying that since no Imperial troops set foot on Hawaii, that somehow this was a case of “no harm, no foul”.
    If murder were legal for all methods that went through the air, wouldn’t that also apply to people who used a gun to throw lead pebbles really fast against Lincoln or Kennedy?
    I don’t see any substantial legal difference between being attacked by a virus-carrier spitting, versus being attacked by a guy with a chainsaw.

  5. says

    @1 – I guessed it would vary state to state, but didn’t mention it. There are some laws that would be the same in almost every state, save one or two outliers. I’m wondering what the prevalent notion is, though I did assume there would be one. Maybe it is total chaos.

    @4 – You had a lot of fun writing that comment, didn’t ya? But you have to admit, COVID is vastly less dangerous than manual application of chainsaw.

    The only counter I’d raise to coughing at somebody being criminalized is that white people in the USA have an amazing talent for thinking anything black people do is at us.

  6. says

    The fact that something constitutes assault does not mean that you’re entitled to do anything you want back in the name of self-defense.

    This will probably be assault in most jurisdictions, but since, as Andreas Avester mentioned in comment #2, fighting back does not protect you from their assault, but only increases the effectiveness of their assault, then in any jurisdiction that requires self-defense to be rationally related to protecting oneself, fighting back will not be justified under law permitting self-defense.

    In other words, yes, it almost certainly counts as an assault, but no, that doesn’t mean that you can then hit them. On the other hand, if someone is in your home and coughs on you and now you’re worried that they might cough on your kids, physical force sufficient to remove them from their home might reasonably be justifiable, again depending on your jurisdiction. That requires you being on / in your own property (possibly including your own car, though that’s much shakier). But still, it’s possible. And if that’s what happened it seems unlikely to me that a prosecutor would attempt to punish you for it.

    If someone was coughing or spitting on me and I had a cell phone, i would immediately take the phone out and start filming. I would definitely ask them why they coughed/spit on me because the natural human impulse is not to think about how this video will come across to people who didn’t see the spitting/coughing on camera, but to respond in the moment to the people who obviously know you spit and/or coughed. So instead of saying “I didn’t spit/cough!” they’ll say something like, “Because you’re being an asshat, and I hate you!” Later, the fact that you weren’t able to film the spitting/coughing won’t matter as much. They might think at that point that denial is a good strategy to get them out of legal trouble, but their language on the video will [if they say what I think most people would say during recording] confirm that such spitting/coughing did occur.

    So, yeah, whenever you’re filming someone AFTER some egregious event, always ask the person on camera why they did X. It’s hard for them to deny it later if they didn’t deny (and/or admitted it) in the moment.

    Then, if and when you’ve gotten an admission on tape, you can consider whether or not it’s safe to do things like tell them you’re turning over the recording to the police. That might deter future assaults, but it might enrage them. Figuring out what’s best in that moment is up to you and your best understanding of what’s going on, because there’s no way I could list in advance which types of situations and people will be the ones that will be deterred and which will be enraged. Just do your best and trust yourself. If it turns out you made the wrong choice and failed to deter and/or enraged the person doing the assaults, their further assaults are still not your fault. You did the best you could.

  7. says

    That is truly weird. I’ll fix it. Wonder why more than one person makes the same mistake? Wait, maybe you changed it after the fact, hacked my computer to edit the image, and are gaslighting me! I’m tripping.

  8. publicola says

    I don’t know. I could say I crowned him with a lead pipe because I was afraid he was going to do it again, and felt I was in imminent danger. It all goes to state of mind, no?

  9. says


    It all goes to state of mind, no?

    The thing is that if you’re an on-duty cop, it all goes to state of mind. However, the law doesn’t want to encourage violence, so it doesn’t leave self-defense entirely up to your subjective claims (usually).

    Instead, it goes to 2 things:

    1) What was your state of mind? Did you honestly fear another assault? Did you honestly take the actions that you did in your self defense to eliminate that fear, or did another motive, such as revenge, contribute to your actions?

    2) What would be the reasonable response of the average, reasonable person? If you deviate too far from this, in particular by escalating your response to be more lethal/dangerous than the original threat, then your actions might simply no longer be eligible for the justification defense to criminal charges. If you deviate, but less than what would simply throw your defense out, then people are entitled to say, ‘Well, if your actions were only self-defense, you probably would have stuck to X, which is what would have been necessary to maintain your safety in that situation. Since you exceeded X by engaging in Y, I conclude that self-defense was not your only motivation.”

    Again, it’s not that your defense attorney can’t ever argue justification in such a situation, but that prosecutors, judges, and jurors can (and do!) infer more venal motives than virtuous self-defense if your actions don’t seem to comport with their ideas of what is reasonable self defense (even if it doesn’t stray so far from the LAW’s ideas to get your defense thrown out entirely). Once those people start taking a dim view of your motives, then prosecutors push for more serious charges and harsher sentences, judges are less likely to rule favorably during motion arguments, and jurors are simply less likely to find you not guilty by reason of justification.

    The law is one thing written on the page, but you’re going to have to convince a bunch of people that you were in the right, and if you’re beating people so that they’re spitting up blood on you, other people are going to have a hard time believing that you’re doing that to prevent them coughing on you.

    on top of that, you can see disparities in how white poeple are treated when they argue self-defense against a black guy and how black people might be treated when they’re arguing self-defense against a white guy. The recent case, I think in North Carolina, of cops shooting an EMT to death during a no-Knock raid b/c her boyfriend thought the people bashing down the door without announcing themselves must be criminals, and so shot his licensed firearm at them. He was immediately arrested and charged with attempted murder. (Possibly attempted aggravated murder, I can’t remember.) Meanwhile, whitey shoots Ahmaud Arbery after chasing him down the street in a pickup truck and surrounding him with at least 3 people, firing first on Arbery, at which point he attempts to take away the gun before the fatal shots were fired. What happened to him? The law enforcement establishment went all out to argue that white people were perfectly entitled to hunt black people.

    So, when you’re talking about what self-defense justification arguments allow you to do, don’t mistake the general parameters of the law with what you’re actually able to get away with.

    Even if someone coughs on you, and even if you know for certain that they’re SARS-CoV-2 positive, and even if you have risk factors that make the illness caused by the virus, COVID-19, it’s legally dangerous to think that you won’t get in trouble for engaging in physical self-defense.

  10. Some Old Programmer says

    Of course, instead of trying to interest the cops, DA, and courts, you could sue the bastard. Unless you’ve committed the cardinal sin of being poor. The US, where “you can get all the justice you can afford” has been raised to a fine art.

  11. Some Old Programmer says

    Oh, there’s one more possibility (at least in some US jurisdictions) that could have some interesting effects. File for a restraining order. It’d be pretty cheap if you represent yourself, and at a minimum you’d have the Respondent having to ‘splain themselves to an unimpressed judge. Of course you’d need to do your homework to be successful, but it’s an interesting course of action other than hiring a lawyer or trying to interest the DA.

  12. Heidi Nemeth says

    Because coronavirus is primarily transmitted by airborne particles which are breathed in, not by contact with surfaces which are contaminated with the particles, the thing to do if someone coughs on you is to immediately hold your breath and walk far away from the person (preferably outside) before breathing again. Unfortunately this precludes filming the incident or perpetrator, but it may save your life.

  13. lanir says

    This is about a film scene rather than an actual incident but it gets at what is and isn’t assault. It also digs into allowable responses as well as how this topic is treated.

    I’ll also add the caveat that someone may be willing to warp deliberate disease spreading into a racist false charge is not a very good reason to abandon the idea entirely. Do what you can to make sure you’re not making it overly easy to do that but using that as a reason to avoid any legal protection for this whatsoever seems like a bad idea. Essentially the logic is that we should allow some extreme forms of bullying because other bullies might use false charges as a bullying tactic. Bullies use whatever tools they have available including anti-bullying responses. We have to fight them where they already are anyway and not just live in fear of where they might be hiding, waiting to jump out at us.

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