Christopher Charles Perez, aka Christopher Robbins, was found guilty of spreading false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons – a criminal offence.
He was arrested in April 2020 after posting threatening messages on Facebook claiming that he had paid someone infected with the virus to lick items at grocery stores in the San Antonio area to scare people away from visiting those establishments.
“My homeboys cousin has covid19 and has licked every thing for past 2 days cause we paid him to,” Perez posted on Facebook, 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.”
Perez was also ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. The crime can lead to a life sentence if loss of life results from the hoax, otherwise, the maximum sentence is five years.
“Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter,” said US Attorney Ashley C Hoff. “This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.”
“Those who would threaten to use Covid-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax,” said FBI San Antonio Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs.
“Perez’s actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today’s sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime. The FBI would like to thank our law enforcement partners for their help in this case.”
According to court documents, Perez argued he made the post to deter people from visiting the stores, purportedly in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
He admitted that the substance of the post was false and no one had been paid to intentionally spread the virus in grocery stores.
Perez’s arrest on 8 April 2020 came after a screenshot of the post was sent to the Southwest Texas Fusion Center, a grouping of law enforcement agencies that coordinates efforts to investigate possible terrorist threats to the public.
He is not protected by the first amendment as his post contained a direct threat of harm, in this case involving the potential use of a biological weapon – Covid-19.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has tracked misinformation related to Covid-19 online, told The Washington Post that Perez’s case is “a good example that what you do on social media has real-life consequences”.