On March 27th, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, in response to the novel Covid-19 outbreak, has pushed for an increase in quarantine enforcement by targeting New Yorkers, whose state has become the current epicenter of the virus.
Such enforcement is to include stopping vehicles with New York tags and conducting house-to-house searches for violators, which will involve members of the Rhode Island National Guard. Refusal to submit may result in a fine and up to ninety days in jail. But is any of this actually legal? Not really. And its effects may be worse than any virus.
Arbitrary is Never Legal
State law enforcement, under orders in Rhode Island, has been posting road stops and ordering all New York vehicles to pull over for questioning. National Guardsmen have also been deployed to airports and bus and train stations to question passengers. Here’s where we enter the murky waters of Constitutional law.
Consider being stopped for a license plate and interrogated for personal information. But it was not a specific plate number that raised a red flag, nor expired registration tags. It was, purely, the state printed on the plate that prompted the stop. This is no less nonsensical than stopping every white truck, solely because a suspect was seen driving such a vehicle.
What of interrogating passengers who are leaving for or returning from a specific place? Surely, that is no crime. And I cannot help but recall images of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Arab-Americans were pulled randomly out of security checks for “random” searches. Whether it was their appearance or from where they were traveling to or returning from, such information hardly constitutes probable cause.
As Rhode Island’s ACLU executive director Steven Brown said 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. 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.”
The most troubling course of action is the use of law enforcement and National Guardsmen to conduct house-to-house searches of residences that may contain New Yorkers. Something as arbitrary as one state resident owning a home in another state is no more cause to conduct interviews, let alone a search, than a New York license plate. Without a warrant, no resident can be required to submit to a search of their home, nor can they be compelled to answer questions or provide evidence against their will.
So, what will the extent of such house-to-house searches be? Will it be a simple interview to determine the presence of Covid-19? And what if one refuses, as they should, to answer questions? Will officers and Guardsmen detain the resident for non-compliance? Will they force their way into the home to conduct a search?
There is no good outcome. Compliance will only serve to weaken the rights of those who do not wish to submit to such reckless displays of authority. Peaceful non-compliance, which is our right, will lead to consequences as yet unknown.
For civil libertarians and civil liberties advocates, the issue is not merely when one city or one state puts security before civil liberties. It also raises concerns of a national precedent.
Currently living in Arizona, we have been fortunate to not have such a large outbreak of Covid-19, much like Rhode Island. With family in California, the convenience of visiting each other throughout the year has made it possible to enjoy each other’s company with great frequency.
But what if Governor Doug Ducey decided to follow Rhode Island’s lead? Suppose I drive from Phoenix to California to visit my parents, who are currently under a statewide lockdown, as I had planned for Easter. Upon driving back, should I pull over and submit to questioning or testing? I think not. What if the State of Arizona sees that I am a previous resident of California? Shall I open my home to law enforcement and Guardsmen? Again, I shall not. Not without a warrant, nor a demonstration of probable cause.
While we are all subjected to the whims of various levels of government throughout the country, we are all protected by our Constitution. Our rights, as described by our Founders, are inherent and cannot be suspended. As such, any violation of our rights or the rights of any other individual, regardless of the circumstances, affects all of us equally. In the same way that all Americans should oppose a local policy such as Stop and Frisk, we must all oppose this reckless abuse of authority in Rhode Island.