GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As of Friday afternoon, Kent County prosecutor Chris Becker had issued one warning to a builder he believed was violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shutdown order.
“We had a residential builder, there was a house being built up in Rockford,” said Becker in an interview with News 8 via Zoom. “I sent a kind of warning letter saying, ‘hey, we think you’re in violation and please cease and desist,’ and to my understanding (the builder did stop).”
Becker, who declined to identify the builder, did not believe the business purposely violated Whitmer’s directive.
“I don’t think anybody, for the most part, is really out there trying to violate the order. There’s just confusion, and we’re in really uncharted territory,” he said.
Warnings to be issued first
Becker said his office plans to issue warnings first, as he did in the Rockford case.
But if a business or individual refuses to heed a warning and continues to defy the stay-at-home order, police can write them a ticket for a 90-day misdemeanor or submit a warrant to prosecutors, in which case Becker’s office would decide if the misdemeanor charge were warranted.
Under the order, charges can be filed “per violation,” meaning suspected scofflaws could face additional counts each time they purposely fail to comply with stay-at-home rules.
“To be honest, we do not want to charge anyone for a violation,” Becker wrote in his letter to the residential builder in Rockford. “Our wish is that you comply with this order, for the safety of yourselves, your workers, and the public at large. We realize these are difficult and confusing times, we simply wish for you to stop your operations that are in violation of this order.”
>>PDF: Letter sent to the builder
Becker also sent a memo to Kent County police chiefs clarifying that residential construction projects must cease under the Stay Home, Stay Safe order.
>>PDF: Memo sent to police chiefs
“A reasonable amount of time should be allowed to these residential builders to protect and preserve projects that were suspended due to the Governor’s order,” wrote Becker in the note to law enforcement leaders.
Police not expected to conduct random checks
When it comes to the general public, Becker said he does not believe police would conduct random checks of individuals who are out in the community.
“I’m not aware of any police agencies just pulling people over and saying, ‘what are you doing, where are you going?’ and trying to get people in trouble that way,” said Becker. “Law enforcement has enough going on right now. We’re not looking for problems.”
Becker acknowledged the public is looking for clarity regarding enforcement of the order.
“We’ve even had some questions in our office,” Becker recalled. “I’m here in the office. We’re at half-staff, limited staff, but we still have to write warrants. (People in the office) have asked, ‘do we need a letter, just in case we get pulled over, saying that we’re going to work? And I said, ‘no, we don’t.’ This is something where there’s enough leeway in the order.”
However, Becker said if police witness an obvious violation – like a business that should clearly be closed or a gathering that’s too large and too close – they will obviously investigate.
Officers are also following up on reports of violations submitted by the public.
“A lot of people are calling,” reported Becker.
“I’ve heard from the sheriff’s department and other departments that people are calling with complaints and questions regarding what the executive order means. So, law enforcement’s initially going to respond, do some sort of investigation, then they’re calling my office to figure out what to do.”
What about walking on a closed golf course?
That doesn’t mean Becker always has an immediate answer.
On Friday, a citizen contacted the prosecutor’s office about people on a golf course that’s closed to the public.
“Clearly golf courses can’t be open, they can’t be selling or letting people ride their golf carts,” Becker explained. “But if someone wants to grab their clubs and go on the property, and the owners are OK with that, it becomes very interesting.”
“The gist of the order is you’re supposed to be staying home and isolating yourself, but I understand you can’t do that for 24/7 for the next three weeks,” Becker said. “So, getting out and getting fresh air is something I think the governor would encourage. So, walking around the neighborhood versus walking around a golf course, what’s the difference? As long as the property owner allows it.”
No coordinated campaign by MSP to inspect businesses
Michigan State Police told News 8 it’s not conducting a coordinated campaign to inspect businesses for compliance.
The spokesperson for MSP’s Fifth District said the agency also has no plans to randomly check an individual’s reason for being outside their homes.
However, MSP made it clear that the executive order carries the weight of the law, and the agency stands ready to enforce any aspect of the directive.
“Given the serious nature of COVID-19, we are confident that Michiganders will take notice and voluntarily comply, as it is in the best interest of the entire state that we all work together to stay home as much as possible,” said Lt. DuWayne Robinson, Public Information Officer for the Fifth District Headquarters of the Michigan State Police.
News 8 also heard Friday from sheriff’s departments in Kalamazoo and Allegan counties and the prosecutor in Berrien County.
“The Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office will enforce executive order 2020-21 as complaints are received. Communication, education, warnings, and monitoring will be used during the initial phase of any investigation. Any enforcement action would be taken after all other efforts have met with non-compliance,” wrote Sheriff Rick Fuller in a news release Friday evening.
Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker said his office’s main focus is on businesses that are violating the order.
“We are documenting and providing guidance to the businesses. We have asked that they comply if it is an obvious violation,” Baker said. “We will work with the prosecutor to determine if future charges are appropriate or pass the information on to LARA (The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs) or liquor control.”
As for how they plan to handle the policing of individuals, Baker said. “We would potentially meet and advise them to practice better social distancing.”
Baker said they would not be pulling drivers over.
“We will not be stopping cars for anything but a traffic violation,” he said.
Berrien County’s prosecutor said he, too, prefers to use warnings before any enforcement.
However, if there are repeated willful violations, Prosecutor Michael Sepic said his office could charge a two-year felony.
“(The 90-day misdemeanor) should be issued for non-compliance for… violations where warnings are ignored. If the situation is one that appears to have clear public health consequences, an order by law enforcement to cease and desist that is ignored could result in an arrest for Resisting and Obstructing a Police Officer, a 2-year felony,” wrote Sepic in a news release issued Friday morning.