CECIL COUNTY – Law enforcement officials in Cecil County say they will enforce Gov. Larry Hogan’s emergency “stay-at-home” order, which he announced Monday, but they will do so only reactively at this point.
“We can’t just randomly stop people on the street and people in cars to find out why they are out in public. In my opinion, it’s not constitutional to do that,” opined Sheriff Scott Adams, noting that the governor’s stay-at-home order lists numerous exceptions that allow residents to venture out into public - including grocery shopping, picking up prescription medication, traveling to “essential” jobs and seeking medical attention.
Cecil County Sheriff's Office deputies, however, will respond to any complaint or report regarding someone who is suspected of being out in public in violation of the governor’s stay-at-home order, which went into effect at 8 p.m. Monday, according to Adams.
“If there is a complaint that has some validity to it, we definitely will respond and investigate it,” Adams told the Cecil Whig.
A person found to be in violation of the stay-at-home order, after the investigation, could face a misdemeanor charge that, according to information supplied by Hogan on Monday during his televised address, is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine if that person is convicted.
Maryland State Police Lt. Jeffrey Kirschner, commander of the North East Barrack, echoed Adams concerning his agency’s enforcement of Hogan’s stay-at-home order.
“We will respond to complaints about it, but we will not be randomly stopping people,” Kirschner outlined.
His comments were in line with stay-at-home enforcement directives issued on Monday night by MSP Superintendent Colonel Woodrow Jones III, according to an agency statement released Tuesday morning. The list of instructions includes the following:
* Enforcement of the expanded Governor's Executive Order will be conducted by Maryland state troopers. However, troopers will not make traffic stops simply to ask drivers where they are going to determine if their travel is essential or not.
* If, in the course of the regular performance of his/her duties, such as during a crash investigation or a traffic stop, the trooper develops information indicating the individual was engaged in non-essential travel, enforcement action can be taken, in consultation with the state's attorney's office in that jurisdiction.
* While it is not necessary for drivers in Maryland to have documentation about the purpose of travel, having such documentation may help resolve questions.
Adams and Kirschner said they believe that Hogan’s broad intent with his latest directive is to further stress the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of staying put – except for reasons deemed “essential” - to reduce the spread of the highly contagious virus.
At the same time, the executive order gives law enforcement officers a tool they can use to charge people who are caught in public for reasons that do not jibe with the exceptions listed in the directive, they added.
Along those lines, there is a strong possibility that a person arrested for a burglary, auto theft or some other crime committed during this statewide stay-at-home directive would be charged with violating the governor's order, in addition to the main charges relating to the actual offense, according to Adams and Kirschner.
"It is something we would run by the State's Attorney (James Dellmyer) first, but, yes, we could also charge them with that (violating the stay-at-home order). If they're out committing a crime, they're out in public obviously for a reason not on the governor's list (of exceptions to the directive)," Adams explained.
Kirschner commented, "Absolutely, there is a possibility we would file that charge, but only after consultation with the state's attorney."
Moreover, according to Kirschner, the charge could apply if a motorist is arrested for drunken-driving or if troopers respond to a crash and, during the course of the investigation, they learn that a driver involved was "heading to a non-essential" destination at the time of the collision.
Enforcement of the order could dissuade others from violating it, thus reducing the number of people in public and, in turn, lowering the risk of spreading the coronavirus, Adams and Kirschner noted.
“The whole idea is to put some teeth behind it. If we see someone who is obviously out in public for a really stupid reason, then we are going to enforce (the order),” Adams said.
He then mentioned last week’s gubernatorial order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people, which is still in effect, and, comparing it to the stay-at-home directive, Adams commented, “This one is a little bit more serious. It's ramped up.”
Kirschner opined, “It’s so people will take it seriously. You can’t just go to Home Depot or Lowes and shop for new carpeting at your leisure.”
He added that a valid reason to visit a hardware store, for example, has to be in line with exceptions listed by Hogan, such as buying supplies to repair a broken, leaking plumbing pipe.
North East Police Department Chief Darrell Hamilton agreed with Adams and Kirschner.
“I don’t see how we can proactively enforce that order. Are you going to arbitrarily stop every car and ask them where they’re going? No,” Hamilton said, adding, “But if we hear about a big party in a backyard or somewhere else, then, yes, we’re going to enforce it. If we see someone out who appears to be loitering, then, yes, we’re going investigate and enforce it.”
Hamilton gave another reason why his department won’t proactively enforce the governor’s directive.
“I’m concerned for the safety of my officers. The idea is to limit interaction to prevent the spread of the virus. I don’t want my officers stopping cars and people just to see where they are going and why. That would unnecessarily put my officers and the people they stop at risk of exposure,” Hamilton explained.
Rising Sun Police Department Chief Francis “Chip” Peterson also indicated that his agency would reactively enforce the order, remarking, “If we’re out and about and we observe an obvious violation, like someone just standing on a street corner, we will enforce it. If we receive a complaint about it, we will enforce it.”
Unlike CCSO, MSP and NEPD, however, RSPD officers also will enforce the order proactively by checking businesses to determine if people are there for “essential” reasons, according to Peterson.
“We will be looking for compliance. If we go into a business deemed essential, take, for example, a grocery store and that grocery store has a cafe or a coffee shop. If we see people sitting there or standing there together, drinking coffee – and not shopping - then we would enforce it,” Peterson explained.
During the governor’s address on Monday, moments after emphasizing that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “deadly public health crisis,” Hogan announced his stay-at-home directive.
“We are no longer asking or suggesting that Marylanders stay home, we are directing them to do so . . . Any person knowingly and willfully violating this order will be guilty of a misdemeanor,” Hogan said, before specifying the penalty that someone would face if convicted of violating the stay-at-home order.
As of approximately 4 p.m. Monday, there were 1,413 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Maryland, resulting in 15 deaths. On March 25, five days earlier, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in this state was 349 – meaning that 1,064 additional cases had been reported during that time frame.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Cecil County, as of Monday, was 15, with no deaths reported, according to figures on the Cecil County Health Department website.