Experts: Local authorities can enforce COVID-19 orders

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — This isn’t Michigan’s first pandemic, but it’s the first time Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker has had to brush up on the century-old pandemic law that gives the state health department power to put the latest COVID-19 restrictions in place. 

“It’s a specific statute that passed after the 1918 pandemic to address situations like this,” Becker said.  

Becker said it’s this same law that gives his office the authority to prosecute those in violation of the order — A misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $200. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office issued a statement Sunday urging local authorities to take the lead when it comes to enforcing the latest order. 

“As with past orders, county public health departments and local law enforcement are primarily responsible for enforcement in their own communities and we hope they do so,” the statement from Nessel’s office said. “We stand ready to assist them in their efforts.”  

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Becker’s office hasn’t had to file any criminal charges for violations of the state’s order.  

“We’re not looking to put handcuffs on somebody or immediately issue a citation,” Becker said. “The first level is hey, educate, (saying) you’re in violation of the law, you need to stop, give them a chance to correct their behavior.” 

Local law enforcement has been instructed to enforce the order like any other law. 

“I sent it out to police saying this is just like any other typical misdemeanor,” Becker said. “You do an investigation, you present a report and we’re going to make a decision on what the violation was.” 

While Becker’s office hasn’t filed any criminal charges for violations, they have issued several cease-and-desist letters telling people they must comply with the orders, or charges could be filed.  

Multiple entities, like the county health department, also have the authority to enforce the order, issuing their own violations and consequences.  

Becker said his office, along with local law enforcement, focus on larger-scale violations.  

“We’re looking for the big things, if you will,” Becker said. “We’re looking for if a bar is open with 200 people in it (or) somebody’s having a party where there’s 20 to 50 people.”  

 The Kent County Health Department has asked residents to report any suspected violations through its website.  

A screenshot of where the Kent County Health Department is asking residents to report suspected violations of the current COVID-19 epidemic order.


A spokesperson with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department sent News 8 the following statement about enforcing the latest order: 

Our agency has and will continue to take an education over enforcement approach for all potential violations of the order that are reported to us. We will respond to and investigate each complaint that is reported, and we will educate all parties involved and seek compliance first. As with any circumstance, we are available to assist businesses that would like to issue trespass warnings against individuals who are not complying with establishment regulations.  

We are continuing to work with the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office and the Kent County Health Department for guidance regarding the order.  

We also encourage residents to contact MIOSHA for all complaints pertaining to businesses that are either non-compliant or not enforcing the order.  

ENFORCEMENT CAN VARY BY LOCATION

Since enforcement is primarily carried out by local authorities, not every community is the same.  

For instance, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said officials with their health department, sometimes accompanied by police officers, will conduct surprise inspections at businesses and schools.  

In contrast, some counties may be more relaxed when it comes to enforcement.  

Michael McDaniel, a constitutional law professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, said there’s already been instances where local authorities aren’t willing to be strict on enforcement. 

“You have to have your county attorney willing to seek cases before the circuit court or persuade the sheriff to enforce those rules,” McDaniel said. “I think that’s where there’s going to be some speedbumps toward enforcement … like we’ve seen before.”  

Though some may argue the legitimacy of the order, McDaniel said the law gives absolutely gives the state health department the power to enact these restrictions, which can then be enforced by local authorities.  

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