PHOENIX — Alarmed by viral videos of what appear to be teen hijinks, a House panel voted Wednesday to make it a felony to tamper with food products and post the deed on the internet.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said this is about more than the viral video of the Texas teen licking a quart of ice cream at a Texas Walmart, putting it back and challenging others to post copycat videos. He told members of the House Judiciary Committee there are other situations, including in Arizona, where someone knowingly contaminates a food product.
Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, questioned the need for a whole new law, pointing out there already are criminal statutes allowing the punishment of people for criminal damage. But Shope said that police and prosecutors have told merchants that they really can’t bring charges in this type of case.
That contention was backed by Shane Hitzeman who is both a Burger King franchisee and representing 130 similar operators in the Southwest. He cited an incident by another Burger King franchise operator where an employee had put ice into a bucket to move it.
“A customer approached that ice bucket, spit in that ice bucket, had his friend film the spitting, and then posted that to Facebook” Hitzeman told lawmakers. While the employee spotted the incident and discarded the ice, he said, “the damage was already done” by the posting, resulting in loss of business.
“Essentially we are defenseless against this type of vile and dangerous behavior,” he said.
“We believe that there should be criminal penalties for contaminating drink and food,” Hitzeman continued. “This would protect the public health and protect the reputation of businesses.”
But Rodriguez said that, however valid the goals of the legislation, the way it is crafted creates all sorts of problems. He said the bill not only criminalizes the contamination of a good product but simply the posting of a description, photography or video or even provides it to another person.
“So it could be charged against someone who just pushes along the viral video,” Rodriguez said.
That possibility did not bother Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale.
“The individual who sees the offense happening and doesn’t turn it in is as guilty as the individual who commits the offense itself,” he said.
But Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson, said it’s not even that simple. She said that it even would apply the penalty to someone who was not the videographer or even a witness but simply retweeted the item.
Marilyn Rodriguez, representing the Association Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said her organization of defense lawyers sees other potentially unintended consequences. And those involve situations where the legislation would still make it a crime — albeit a misdemeanor — to contaminate food in situations where no one posts a video.
“It’s written to impact someone who sneezes and then touches produce,” she said. “They now face potential criminal charges for their absentmindedness.”
And she said if that person caused damage to the produce there already are laws on the books to bring changes.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said he doubted this measure law would come into play in such a circumstances, pointing out that the proposal would make it illegal to “knowingly introduce, add or mingle any bodily fluid” with food that may be for human consumption. But Rep. Rodriguez said that may provide no legal defense.
He said that phrase covers not just someone knowing they were going to contaminate food but that they “should have known” that what they were doing would result in contamination. In fact, Rodriguez said, the law also could be applied to someone who is ill but comes to work anyway, as an argument could be made that the person should have known he or she would contaminate food.
The 6-4 party-line vote, with Republicans in the majority, sets the stage for debate at the full House.