On March 31, 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbot issued a social distancing order for the state. This order allows the continuance of only essential services and activities. In this order, essential services, as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, Version 2.0, and religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship.
Purpose of the Governor's Order
Texas has already experienced many infections and fatalities directly related to COVID-19. To help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, the governor's order mandates that people cannot gather in groups of over ten. Some jurisdictions, such as Dallas County and the city of Waco, went even further and declared even more stringent shelter-in-place orders. A curfew was initiated in Hidalgo County, which allows some exceptions.
Enforcing the Order
Texas law enforcement agencies throughout the state report that they will be rated on how they will enforce this executive order to practice social distancing. Of course, they could result in punitive actions such as fines or jail time, but they want to reserve these actions as a last resort. One of the goals is to avoid making arrests and putting people in crowded jails where the infection can spread rapidly.
Thus far, Abbot, along with law enforcement agencies, reports that there has been significant voluntary compliance with the order for social distancing. Even still, the governor recently warned Texans that non-compliance could result in fines of as much as $1,000 and up to six months in jail. It is up to local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety to enforce the statewide order. If businesses refuse to comply, for instance, restaurants that allow dining-in will lose their licenses.
The Probable Cause Requirement
Another aspect to consider is the constitutionality of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. Generally, when a crisis occurs, courts will weigh civil liberties with public health concerns. However, long-term limitations for weeks or possibly months without individual peril assessments could cause problems.
McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, whose department enforces Hidalgo County's 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, explains that law enforcement agents cannot legally remove someone off of the street and put them in jail. Officers must still adhere to the constitution and meet the requirement of probable cause if they believe that an offense has occurred.
As such, voluntary compliance is the goal of most agencies. Texans are voluntarily keeping their distance from public eating areas. More often than not, it is businesses that are violating the executive orders. Law enforcement goes to these businesses and attempts to educate them before taking further actions. They are also focusing on gatherings of groups in public places and not so much on gatherings that take place at private residences.
Call a Knowledgeable Austin Criminal Defense Attorney for Help
If you are facing charges in relation to the governor's orders or believe your rights were violated, getting a legal consultation should be your next step. We have been pursuing justice for our clients since 1993. To schedule your free case consultation with an Austin criminal defense lawyer, call 512-474-9999 or complete our online contact form.