Most public health experts have agreed that staying at home and minimizing contact with other people are two important ways we can all help stem the spread of COVID-19.
In response, many cities and counties across the country, as well as here in Texas, have put into place various stay-home, shelter-in-place, and work-safe orders to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of counties in Texas have enacted such orders so far, as have the governor and our federal government.
But most stay-home orders have included enforcement measures that can allow for up to a $1,000 fine or six months of jail time for violating them. Unfortunately, that means if you are found to be violating any portion of your community’s emergency order, it is in fact possible that you could be fined, arrested, or even jailed.
There have already been reports in Texas claiming the enforcement of these stay-home orders. While law enforcement technically has the right to enforce them, that response should only be used as a last resort. Some government agencies have already gone on the record to say they are not imposing fines and jail sentences at this time, but more need to follow suit.
That’s because at a time of economic fragility and when Texas jails are already overcrowded — and potential danger sites for outbreaks — arrests and jailtime could worsen the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, enforcement would introduce many community members to an already flawed criminal justice system: Fines are a slippery slope to incarceration, and arrests would bring harm to families already dealing with the effects of a global pandemic, including food, housing, and job instability.
Black, Brown, and immigrant communities in Texas are particularly vulnerable, as many are already disproportionately policed. The new stay-home orders bring another level of risk and fear for these communities. Stay-home orders should never be used to target any specific group or to discriminate against them.
We all deserve to live in safe communities, including from a deadly virus spreading from person to person. But we must not criminalize people for not understanding a new reality that is afflicting their families and communities in an unprecedented way.
We urge all police officers, sheriffs, and other government officials to first focus on what’s important before considering enforcement components of these orders: Educating the public and warning people about this public health crisis is paramount in combating the virus’ spread.
We also urge everyone to follow their local stay-home guidance for the sake of their own health and the health of the entire community. However, while you are required by law to follow orders related to declarations of emergency, that does not mean that your fundamental constitutional rights fly out the window.
So, how can you make sure that you are keeping yourself and your community safe while also ensuring your rights are protected?
If you are stopped by police, remember to stay calm: You have rights. You have a right to remain silent and you also have a right to film the police. The ACLU Blue smart phone application is a good way to do so as the video can be immediately uploaded to the ACLU of Texas’ centralized system.
The ACLU of Texas has also created a Know Your Rights guide specifically related to these stay-home orders.
If you do feel like your rights have been violated in any encounter with law enforcement, you can let us know through our online Legal Assistance Request form.
We should all do our part to help stop the spread of this disease. In the meantime, the ACLU of Texas will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that local orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic are enforced in a way that is non-discriminatory and protects everyone's civil liberties.