A Veteran Was Sent to Jail for Stealing Masks to Give to Homeless People
Peter Lucas was jailed overnight at a time when prosecutors across the country are actively working to reduce the number of people behind bars to stem the spread of COVID-19.
In mid-March, when the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States began increasing exponentially and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended cancelling gatherings of 10 people or more, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada appointed a prosecutor to pursue fraud cases related to the global pandemic.
Three weeks later, the fraud team had its first major case: a veteran who stole between $10-$160 worth of surgical masks.
According to the criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Nevada, between March 19 and March 23, 35-year-old Peter Lucas was caught on camera taking four boxes of surgical masks off a supply cart at the Ioannis A. Lougaris VA Medical Center in Reno and hiding them in his jacket. Each box contained 50 masks.
Lucas, a formerly homeless ex-Marine and single father of three, told police he had taken the masks to distribute to homeless people. On April 7, he was arrested, booked, and spent the night at the Washoe County Detention Facility, a jail with a daily population of roughly 1,100. The VA system in Reno, where Lucas was enrolled in a vocational rehab program, has already been exposed to the outbreak: three people who worked for the VA system in Reno have died from the virus.
Lucas is being charged with one count of theft of healthcare property, a misdemeanor. He is facing up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted. Lucas’s public defender declined to speak on the record. Through his attorney, Lucas also declined to speak.
He made his initial appearance by video from the detention facility and was released on his own recognizance. That same day, on April 8, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada put out a press release detailing the accusations against Lucas and slamming his “theft of personal protective equipment.” The press release included the criminal complaint against Lucas, which featured several pictures of the man that were widely shared by news outlets across the country.
Lucas was jailed overnight at a time when prosecutors across the country are actively working to reduce the number of people behind bars to stem the spread of the virus. The law enforcement officials involved in Lucas’s case could have opted to resolve the nonviolent, low-level offense with a summons or citation, but chose instead to have Lucas spend the night in jail in the middle of a pandemic.
Asked about the decision to put Lucas behind bars for a night, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada said, “Law enforcement arrested the defendant based on the allegations set forth in the complaint: in the midst of the COVID-19 situation, when there are widespread mask shortages, the defendant allegedly stole personal protective equipment from a VA hospital. Along with our law enforcement partners, we will continue to protect Nevadans and deter criminal wrongdoing—particularly when a crime endangers the safety of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals who are working around the clock on behalf of our communities.”
Jails are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks since so many people are constantly coming and going from the facilities and are kept within close, often poorly sanitized quarters throughout their detention. But an infection in the jail doesn’t just put people within the facility at risk—it puts the community outside at risk too, since detainees also interact with scores of staffers who leave the facility and return to the community daily.
Elsewhere in the same county, law enforcement officials have made efforts to reduce the number of people in jails. Data collected by the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office shows the average number of daily bookings at the county jail in March dropped by 36 percent when compared to the previous March. Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam told the Reno Gazette Journal that the Washoe County Detention Facility is currently housing about 200 fewer people than normal, a drop he attributed to changes local police departments have made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Washoe County sheriff’s deputies have been citing and releasing people who commit low-level misdemeanor offenses, Balaam said, according to the newspaper. Reno police officers have also been instructed to use discretion and issue citations or warnings when possible for nonviolent crimes, Reno Police Chief Jason Soto told the Gazette Journal.
Last week, public defenders joined a petition with the Nevada Supreme Court asking justices to order Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak to release certain groups of incarcerated people. Those groups include people who have been granted parole yet remain incarcerated, people who are vulnerable and within 18 months of parole eligibility, and people who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses and will be eligible for release in the next three years.
“An outbreak of COVID-19 among Nevada’s incarcerated population will be a crisis for inmates, prison staff and their families, and the hospitals that serve them,” the amicus brief filed by the federal public defender for the district of Nevada and public defenders from Washoe and Clark counties, the two most populous in the state and home to Reno and Las Vegas respectively. Roughly 13,000 people are incarcerated by the Nevada Department of Corrections, while an additional 2,500 people are employed by the NDOC.
“Once COVID-19 enters a prison, its spread will be nearly impossible to slow. The incarcerated cannot engage in social distancing. And prison life—shared confined spaces and surfaces, like communal showers or bathrooms—is conducive to spreading COVID-19,” the brief states. “This Court can and should protect against this.”
At least six Nevada Department of Corrections employees have tested positive for COVID-19. At least one Washoe County jail deputy has also tested positive.
Countywide, over 530 COVID-19 cases have been reported, and half of Washoe County’s hospital beds are already full. At least 15 people from Washoe County have died from the virus.
Across the country, COVID-19 outbreaks have spread through jails and prisons like wildfire, as facilities like Cook County Jail in Chicago and the Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson, Michigan, have become some of the single largest sources of positive coronavirus cases nationwide. On March 23, two people incarcerated at Cook County Jail tested positive for the virus. Within three weeks, over 300 people incarcerated at the facility have been infected. Nearly 200 Cook County jail staffers have also tested positive.
“Once the pandemic begins spreading in Nevada’s inmate population, no legal remedy will be swift enough to protect the incarcerated or prison guards,” the brief signed by defense attorneys last Friday states. “The failure to act guarantees the spread of COVID-19. As noted by the United States Attorney General William Barr, institutions like jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to becoming ‘petri dishes’ for the virus.”