A Georgia soldier is accused of speeding away from state troopers while driving drunk. An underage boater is charged with alcohol and drug use on a serene north Georgia lake. Members of a south Georgia church attend services despite pleas to stay at home.
All were cited for violating Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order. But they are among the exceptions.
Law enforcement officials have only sparingly issued citations to Georgians violating the order, instead opting to take a softer approach to the restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
A review of records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that the Department of Public Safety had issued just 18 citations from April 3, when the order took effect, through Tuesday. The other main state agency enforcing the law, the Department of Natural Resources, reported just one criminal charge.
Many metro Atlanta police departments and sheriff’s offices say they’ve fielded a surge of calls about potential incidents. But instead of criminal charges or citations, officer and deputies are educating citizens on the order, therefore avoiding booking violators in jail.
“We are not aiming to arrest people violating the shelter-in-place order,” Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said. “In an effort to keep our deputies and other inmates safe, we’re trying to avoid unnecessary arrests for non-violent crimes.”
City of Atlanta police officers, too, haven’t issued any citations for those violating either Kemp’s order or an earlier one from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a spokesman said.
In lieu of aggressively ticketing violators, Georgia State troopers have issued roughly 200 warnings and closed 20 businesses, including those that voluntarily shuttered after learning of details from the order. In all, the agency said it received more than 800 calls since Kemp’s order went into place.
Most of the calls that the State Patrol and other state authorities have received were listed as “not sustained” – meaning that they didn’t observe any violations of the state’s order, said Lt. Stephanie Stallings of the Georgia State Patrol.
Some raced to investigate secondhand tips or rumors from social media. Several involved homeowners hosting barbecues or other gatherings of more than 10 people who quickly dispersed. Many centered on large gatherings or businesses that opened without exercising social distancing, though catching violators in the act has proved challenging.
Sometimes, the officers responding to the call found only a couple of people at the business by the time they arrived, Stallings said. Many of the businesses showed signs that they were trying to comply with the order, such as tape marking proper spacing on their flooring.
“Every attempt has been made to educate the public,” said Stallings. “It’s new to everyone.”
When Kemp issued the stay at home order, he said he’d take “appropriate action to ensure full compliance — no exceptions” but also suggested that authorities weren’t looking to make a slew of arrests and encouraged people to call a tip line.
Critics of his coronavirus response said the public should closely monitor how his order is enforced. State Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said there’s a legitimate concern of government overreach after lawmakers granted Kemp extraordinary powers to stem the disease’s spread.
“There’s still a real threat if somebody is thinking about deliberately flouting the rules,” he said. “But based on the numbers of arrests we’re seeing so far, I trust that law enforcement are making good decisions about which violations most threaten public safety.”
Some caught blatantly violating the order have been criminally charged.
Two days after Kemp’s order went into effect, troopers arrested a 20-year-old Georgia soldier in Coweta County who said he was AWOL from Fort Gordon in Augusta.
According to the State Patrol, Christian Lee Robinson was driving drunk at more than 120 mph on I-85 when a trooper spotted him April 5. Robinson then refused to stop for a trooper, who was forced to take emergency measures to stop the driver.
Robinson was charged with reckless conduct for violating the shelter-in-place order, along with numerous other charges including DUI and obstruction. He was released from the Coweta jail after posting $6,200 bond.
‘Kind of surprising’
State authorities on Thursday released a list of the citations and five of them stem from a Statesboro church that held services in close quarters last week despite Kemp’s order to space out.
After repeated warnings, state patrol officers issued misdemeanor reckless conduct citations to the church’s pastor and four congregants after they refused to hold services outside the cramped building or take other measures to keep socially distanced. Still, they returned a week later for Easter services.
“We have four people going to be baptized today — that’s because we didn’t close our church doors,” said the pastor, Eli Porter, who wasn’t charged with a second violation.
In Haralson County, a woman whose boyfriend was in the hospital for treatment of coronavirus was initially charged because she refused to quarantine. Those charges were dropped when she tested negative for the virus, a spokeswoman for the county’s sheriff’s office said Wednesday.
Enforcing the governor’s order has soaked up plenty of resources.
The Department of Natural Resources said officers worked nearly 8,000 hours over the last two weeks to monitor beaches, parks, lakes and public land for violations.
They issued 371 violations through verbal warnings, and an incident log is full of reports of large groups gathering on sandbars, huddling at campsites or sunbathing on seashores.
A spokesman said almost every time, the parties heeded the warnings and either complied with social distancing or dispersed. The lone exception? An underage boater at a north Georgia state park who was jailed for alcohol and drug violations.
The governor said he was most concerned with a different sort of threat: Stir-crazy residents flouting his order with large get-togethers.
“Over the weekend unfortunately we had to shut down a few parties that people were throwing,” said Kemp. “We’ve had a lot more problems with neighborhood block parties than we have at our beaches and state parks, which is kind of surprising.”
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