Is Violating a Shelter-in-Place Order a Crime?

During a state of emergency, states can issue emergency orders to protect public health and safety. Law enforcement officers can issue citations or arrest people who violate these orders.

In an effort to disrupt the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), most states have issued emergency executive orders. The details of these orders vary by location, but the goal is the same—to get people to stay home.

In a matter of days, emergency coronavirus orders have:

  • shut down businesses
  • closed schools
  • restricted travel
  • imposed quarantines
  • limited large gatherings
  • mandated social distancing, and
  • directed residents to stay-at-home or shelter-in-place.

These executive orders have dramatically altered the lives of over 270 million Americans. Many are wondering, “What will enforcement of emergency coronavirus orders look like?”

Enforcement of Executive Orders

During emergency situations, such as the 9/11 attacks and now the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, states have emergency police powers to enforce orders to protect public health and safety. Law enforcement officers can issue citations or arrest people who violate these orders.

For public health emergencies, state laws also allow law enforcement and health officials to enforce official quarantine and isolation measures.

Residents can often find specific information about how local police department plans to enforce emergency coronavirus executive orders on their websites (for example, see department notices issued by the San Francisco Police Department and by the Maryland State Police). Typically, governments implement new executive orders in three phases.

The Educational Phase

The first step is notifying the public about the order and explain why the order is necessary to protect public health and safety. Officials hope that people who are educated about the seriousness of the public health threat will voluntarily comply with orders. If Americans don’t follow social distancing orders, worst-case modeling projects up to 2.2 million people could die.

The Warning Phase

Police officers will contact people who refuse to voluntarily comply with orders. Officers will typically give verbal or written warnings before issuing citations or making arrests.

Some states and counties have closed public parks because of the number of people who refuse to comply with social distancing orders.

The Enforcement Phase

As a last resort, officials have the authority to compel compliance and to punish noncompliance. Most violations are misdemeanors offenses, which carry up to a year in jail in most states. Punishment for misdemeanors can also include payment of a fine, probation, community service, and restitution.

Officers will likely cite and release people suspected of violating coronavirus executive orders, rather than arresting them and placing them in jail. (Many jurisdictions are attempting to reduce the jail population in an effort to prevent coronavirus outbreaks.) But some jurisdictions are cracking down and arresting violators who repeatedly defy officers' orders.

Businesses who violate executive orders risk civil fines, mandatory closures, and revocation of business licenses and permits.

How to Report a Suspected Violation

Law enforcement agencies have been flooded with calls reporting suspected violations of emergency executive orders. If you suspect a violation, do not call 911. You should call the local police department’s non-emergency phone number. Some states, like Washington, created online forms to report suspected business violations.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have questions about emergency coronavirus executive orders, talk to a local attorney. For information on how to safely consult with an attorney, check out: Effects of COVID-19 on Legal Practice: How to Communicate with Your Lawyer.

For an in-depth discussion of key legal issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, see Nolo's special coverage: The Law and Your Legal Rights During the Coronavirus Outbreak.

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