Many jurisdictions across the United States have issued COVID-19-related stay-at-home directives that include a variety of enforcement measures, from warnings to civil enforcement to criminal punishment. As the pandemic has progressed, there has been a notable increase nationwide in the number of reports of police enforcement action, raising concerns about overcriminalization. The following list provides examples of how various jurisdictions are enforcing these social distancing orders. Please note that this list is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to provide an overview of the variety of approaches to enforcement taking place across the country.
Suspension of business operations or licenses
In Summit County, Ohio, the public health department—as of March 27—had closed 37 nonessential businesses that operated in violation of Ohio’s stay-at-home order, including 16 car washes, 13 electronic cigarette and vape shops, five retail stores, a fitness center, a private college, and a private playground.
In Anderson County, South Carolina, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Revenue have revoked LA Sports Club’s liquor license for failing several times to comply with the state’s executive order barring all restaurants and pubs from any service other than takeout or delivery.
- Oregon bar defied coronavirus order to serve drinks, authorities say; now, its license is suspended
Cave Junction, Oregon | April 14, 2020
- 11 Denver Businesses Forced To Close For Violating Stay-At-Home Order
Denver, Colorado | April 9, 2020
- COVID-19: Business loses license, 9 others under investigation in San Benito County
Hollister, California | April 8, 2020
- ‘Non-essential’ businesses shut down by Metro Health Department
Nashville, Tennessee | April 6, 2020
- Cops closed 44 businesses, cited 842 people for violating coronavirus lockdown in Newark in 1 week
Newark, New Jersey | April 6, 2020
- Bar license suspended for violating order
Follansbee, West Virginia | March 31, 2020
- Clark County Suspends Business Licenses for Defying Shutdown
Clark County, Nevada | March 28, 2020
- Health Department shuts down 2 local bars for ignoring New York order
Erie County, New York | March 28, 2020
- City of Providence closes 2 businesses in violation of restrictions amid coronavirus
Providence, Rhode Island | March 15, 2020
In Central, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell was arrested on March 31, 2020, and faces six misdemeanor counts for holding six large church services over two weeks, violating Louisiana’s stay-at-home order, which prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people. City and state leaders had urged the pastor to suspend services in order to stem the spread of COVID-19 cases in the area.
In Charles County, Maryland, a man was arrested and held without bond after hosting two parties at his home. He was charged with two counts of violating the governor’s executive order, an offense punishable by up to one year of incarceration and a $5,000 fine.
Other examples include:
- Paterson shooting victim charged with violating NJ’s coronavirus stay-at-home order
Paterson, New Jersey | April 14, 2020
- Enforcing stay-at-home order, Chicago police arrest 3 men while breaking up gathering to remember homicide victim
Chicago, Illinois | April 9, 2020
- 8 arrested for violating social distancing orders
Monsey, New York | April 9, 2020
- Paddle boarder chased by boat, arrested in Malibu, after flouting coronavirus closures
Malibu, California | April 3, 2020
- Three Massachusetts men charged with violating RI executive order to play golf
Richmond, Rhode Island | April 2, 2020
- A Maryland man held a party at a hotel amid coronavirus. He now faces criminal charges.
Baltimore, Maryland | April 1, 2020
- New Jersey parents charged with child endangerment for holding party with around 50 guests
Lakewood, New Jersey | March 31, 2020
- Police arrest Florida pastor for holding church services despite stay-at-home order
Hillsborough County, Florida | March 30, 2020
- New York City Man Arrested for Running Speakeasy Where People Were Drinking and Gambling During Coronavirus Lockdown
New York, New York | March 30, 2020
- 2 arrested, 70 cited for violating stay-at-home orders, Honolulu police say
Honolulu, Hawaii | March 26, 2020
- Orlando police arrest homeless man who violated curfew, affidavit says
Orlando, Florida | March 23, 2020
Sentence enhancement and charge stacking
In Hawaii County, prosecutors have relied on the stay-at-home order to “stack” charges against an individual accused of breaking into a restaurant and stealing $3 from a tip jar. The individual was charged with burglary during an emergency period and violation of an emergency order, in addition to charges of property damage and theft. Bail was set at $10,750.
In Palm Beach, Florida, prosecutors are using the emergency declaration to enhance penalties for individuals charged with offenses such as theft or burglary. Under Florida law, charges for these offenses can be upgraded during a state of emergency. For example, a person who commits an eligible third-degree felony could be charged with a second-degree felony, increasing their maximum sentence from five years to 15 years imprisonment.
Other examples include:
- ‘Crime of opportunity’: Some Beaufort Co. charges get a boost during state of emergency
Beaufort County, South Carolina | April 14, 2020
- Man crashes car, faces citations including violating stay-at-home order, police say
Chester County, Pennsylvania | April 7, 2020
- Alabama deputies arrest 3, add charge for health violation as drug trafficking is ‘non-essential’
Limestone County, Alabama | April 7, 2020
- Man jailed, charged with violating stay-at-home order after shots fired, police say
Kankakee Township, Indiana | April 1, 2020
- Alleged shoplifter in Avon charged for violating ‘stay at home order’
Avon, Ohio | March 25, 2020
- Kentucky man charged with violating Indiana’s stay-at-home order following arrest for drugs, stolen gun
Hamilton County, Indiana | March 31, 2020
Lea Hunter is a research associate for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Betsy Pearl is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center. Kenny Lo is a research associate for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center.
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