Police reluctant to enforce social distancing edicts

Signs are posted along the Beltline, urging people to stay separated in Atlanta, March 28, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Caption
Signs are posted along the Beltline, urging people to stay separated in Atlanta, March 28, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

It’s an order without much teeth. In Atlanta and across the state, some residents maintain a cavalier attitude about the risks of social interaction, openly flouting shelter-in-place edicts meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But with infections rising, will police be called upon to enforce what, up to now, have amounted to little more than strongly worded suggestions?

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said the department remains focused on educating citizens, but adds that could change.

“The Atlanta Police Department is aware that there are gatherings taking place throughout the city that may be contrary to the instruction in the Mayor’s Stay at Home Order which prohibits gatherings of any size by persons who are not members of the same household,” Campos said.

“In some instances, we find that there are people who were not aware of the executive order, and once they are made aware, they voluntarily disperse. We hope that as we move forward, we will continue to avoid the necessity of this becoming an enforcement issue.”

Ultimately it comes down to a decision most would rather avoid. Does public safety trump constitutional rights? It’s an quandary with little precedent, but one sure to be faced as the health crisis worsens.

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“This is such uncharted territory,” said constitutional lawyer Gerry Weber, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “But I do think the government is going to get a tremendous amount of deference because we’re in a pandemic.”

Look no further than Florida, where a Tampa pastor was arrested Monday after holding church services in defiance of Hillsborough County’s shelter-in-place order.

“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told reporters Monday, “as well as put thousands of residents who may interact with them in danger.”

But what about the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of assembly and religion? It’s a tug-of-war certain to continue, Marietta attorney Philip Holloway said.

“I never thought it would be OK in America to tell a church they couldn’t hold services,” Holloway said. “You’ve got one side saying, ‘Look, it’s an emergency, everyone’s freedoms have to take a back seat.’ But what if we all don’t agree it’s an emergency? We can’t just suspend the Constitution.”

In metro Atlanta, most law-enforcement agencies have adopted strategies in line with APD’s emphasis on education over enforcement.

DeKalb County spokesman Andrew Cauthen cited a provision in the county’s stay-at-home order that recognizes police “do not have the personnel or resources to monitor and police distancing or gathering limitations or stay-at-home requirements.” Police are authorized to support compliance “through information delivery and education of individuals,” the order states.

In Gwinnett County, solicitor general Brian Whiteside announced this week that anyone violating the county’s shelter-in-place order could be fined $1,000 or sentenced to up to 60 days in jail. But that’s dependent on arrests, and so far Gwinnett police haven’t made any. Violators are instead encouraged to return home, Gwinnett police spokesman Colin Flynn said.

But at least one local agency has assumed powers they may not actually possess. In Camden County, located in the southeast corner of the state, police have set up checkpoints along I-95 prohibiting out-of-towners from making any stops for gas, lodging, meals or visits.

“Under what authority are they acting?” Holloway said. “We have to avoid a hysterical reaction to this crisis.”

The checkpoints, which have snarled traffic on the interstate, are expected to remain through Wednesday, though local officials said they could be extended.

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