- REUTERS/Oliver Doyle
- On Saturday, military police of the National Guard – armed, camouflaged, and clad in flak-jackets – went door to door in Rhode Island where cars with New York license plates, or no plates at all, were parked.
- Pandemic or no pandemic, the Fourth Amendment has something to say about that. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it “reactionary” and “illegal.”
- Americans are already being conditioned to accept the “do something, anything” approach. This is almost always a mistake.
- If the government says the only way to ensure public safety is the abandonment of civil liberties, we must always first ask if this is the only way.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen in the New York area, other states are adopting increasingly draconian measures to stem the spread of the disease.
Rhode Island’s and Florida’s aggressive policing of New Yorkers as a public-health threat portends an ominous future for civil liberties during the coronavirus pandemic.
The disturbing reality played out most vividly in Rhode Island. Gov. Gina Raimondo was surely looking out for the best interests of her state’s residents when she ordered a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming from New York coming into the Ocean State. Raimondo said that in her judgment this was “the most prudent form of action.”
The state police and the National Guard were deployed to enforce Raimondo’s directive, resulting in surreal scenes of cars being pulled over and their passengers forced to register themselves with the government, simply because the vehicles were adorned with New York license plates.
Authorities with the power to detain and arrest US citizens were also sent to bus and train stations, as well as TF Green Airport, to seek out and inform visitors from New York of the order, the violation of which is punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and an incarceration of up to 90 days.
But Rhode Island went even further, disturbingly so. On Saturday, military police of the National Guard – armed, camouflaged, and clad in flak jackets – began knocking on the doors of homes where cars with New York plates, or no plates at all, were parked.
Pandemic or no pandemic, the Fourth Amendment has something to say about that.
As Steven Brown, the Rhode Island ACLU executive director, put it in a statement: “While the Governor may have the power to suspend some state laws and regulations to address this medical emergency, she cannot suspend the Constitution.”
Brown called the plan “ill-advised and unconstitutional” and added: “Under the Fourth Amendment, having a New York state license plate simply does not, and cannot, constitute ‘probable cause’ to allow police to stop a car and interrogate the driver, no matter how laudable the goal of the stop may be.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York forcefully slammed Raimondo’s order, calling it “reactionary” and “illegal.” Cuomo threatened to sue Rhode Island if it didn’t immediately roll back the policy.
Thankfully, Raimondo quickly backed off.
Cuomo said in a Sunday press briefing that he had spoken with his Rhode Island counterpart the previous day and explained his objections to the unneighborly policy, and that Raimondo “was very receptive” and adjusted the enforcement accordingly.
This same weekend, President Trump floated the idea of quarantining large swaths of the tristate area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, a proposal which Cuomo called an “anti-American, anti-social” policy that would constitute a “federal declaration of war” on states.
Trump was reportedly dissuaded from issuing such a draconian policy after speaking with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who suggested instead having the CDC issue a strongly worded advisory against anyone from the tristate area making any nonessential travel for the next two weeks.
The pandemic is going to get worse, and so will the urge to curb civil liberties
Medical experts don’t believe we’re anywhere near the apex of the pandemic in the US, and it’s very possible there could be “rolling apexes,” as Cuomo put it Sunday, where it might seem we’ve experienced the worst, only for it to come back in a different region later. This would create a vicious cycle where the virus recirculates to areas that might have only just begun to breathe a sigh of relief.
In such a scenario, areas like New York which have been devastated by death and severe illness, and whose citizens have essentially lived in a voluntary lockdown for months, could see a public backlash to an even more prolonged period of misery.
Likewise, citizens areas in the US that have not had their health care systems similarly ravaged could insist their governments protect them from out-of-staters bringing the virus to their doorsteps.
These factors would create a state of unrest that would almost certainly precipitate a severe government reaction.
Americans typically treasure the good stuff in the Bill of Rights that forbids the government from unwarranted search and seizures, but Americans also have a long history of willfully allowing – sometimes even demanding – their civil liberties to be curbed in crisis.
After 9/11, Congress rushed the Patriot Act through in a matter of weeks, ostensibly to make it easier for law enforcement to coordinate on tracking and stopping terrorists. Nearly two decades later, the law has been far more likely to be used to track drug dealers and ordinary Americans, and continues to be regularly reauthorized.
But it’s in times of crisis that civil liberties are the most vital.
This is not to say that the Constitution should be always considered inflexible, or that there aren’t legitimate reasons for governments to take extreme measures.
But if you take the examples of this past weekend – Rhode Island’s brief experiment with a “papers, please” style of public health enforcement, coupled with Trump’s terrifying thought bubble of locking tens of millions of Americans in place – there’s reason to be concerned right now.
Americans are already being conditioned to accept the “do something, anything” approach. This is almost always a mistake.
If the government says the only way to ensure public safety is the abandonment of civil liberties, we must always first ask if this is the only way. Because it usually isn’t, and “emergency” powers have a funny way of surviving long after they’ve exhausted their intended use.
Do you have a personal experience with civil liberties violations or public unrest as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? If you’d like to share, please email email@example.com. You can also request my encrypted WhatsApp and Signal numbers.
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