Maskless Florida Woman Jailed for Coughing on Customer

Carolyn Crist

April 12, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

A Florida woman who purposefully coughed on another customer without wearing a mask in a Pier 1 store last summer has received jail time and fines, according to The Washington Post.

Debra Hunter, 53, will serve 30 days in jail, followed by 6 months of probation. She is also required to take an anger management course and pay a $500 fine. She was charged with second-degree assault, which is a misdemeanor.

In an online sentencing session on Thursday, Judge James A. Ruth said Hunter's actions at the Jacksonville store on June 25 could have had "deadly consequences" for the customer, Heather Sprague, who was being treated for a brain tumor.

In a video that Sprague recorded and shared on social media, Hunter is waiting at a Pier 1 checkout counter and having an argument with store employees. She turns to Sprague and confronts her for recording the scene.

"Do you really need this? What do you want to do, post it for you? How about that?" Hunter said and held up two middle fingers. Then she walked toward Sprague.

"I think I'll get real close to you and cough on you then. How's that?" she said as she approached the camera and then coughed.

Hunter then calls Sprague a derogatory name as she walks away, and the video captures Sprague saying, "Whoa. No. Uh-uh. No way." Hunter picks up her belongings and leaves the store with one of her children.

During Thursday's sentencing, Sprague said she was being treated for a brain tumor at the time and that some of the youngest of her 10 children had weak immune systems. She also said the cough, which sprayed droplets in her face, made her worried about her and her family's health at a time when coronavirus tests were hard to get last summer.

During the hearing, Hunter read a letter that detailed how her husband and three children had suffered because of what she did. She explained that her social circle had shrunk and that her children had been ostracized by their classmates. She added that her family was "permanently scarred" after the video was shared across social media and that her children shouldn't have to suffer more.

"I often wonder what it would be like if every one of us, as the flawed human beings we are, had their worst moments reduced to a short video for all the world to see and judge," she said. "The hardest part is that video shows me in the worst possible light on my worst possible day."

In the sentencing, Ruth focused on the potential effects on Sprague. He also noted that while Hunter was concerned about the well-being of her own family, she seemed to show little remorse for Sprague and her family.

"I didn't hear much about your client's concern for the actual victim in this case," Ruth said to Hunter's attorney. "I haven't heard about the potential deadly impact this could have had on all of them, not only because of COVID, but someone who has cancer and a compromised immune system."

Ruth noted that Hunter's tone in the video, as well as her hand gesture, negated the claim that she was concerned about social media consequences. In addition to 5 months of probation, Hunter may be required to take mental health evaluations and follow-up treatments if a counselor finds it necessary.

"Your behavior in the presence of the children is reason for me to believe that was not the only episode the children had witnessed also or had been exposed," he said.

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