SHERIFF'S CORNER: Enforcement in a time of crisis
Recently, a few Sheriffs officially came out opposing many of the governor's executive orders relating to the COVID-19 crisis.
I have been asked on my thoughts and feelings relating to this, as well as what we are doing locally on enforcement and compliance. In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I will be covering these topics and answering some of these questions.
It is a hard time for our community and local businesses. You have to worry about contracting the virus but also worry about not being able to pay your bills. So, this is a complex issue.
As Sheriff, I have to look out for our community's best interest, while keeping them safe, while at the same time honoring my oath of office. I also have to look out for the safety and well-being of my deputies and staff.
While social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have been enacted across the state, many first responders remain in their jobs, taking on active roles in their communities in situations where they risk contracting the virus themselves.
My philosophy of bringing people together, while also bringing our community together, cannot be achieved by coming out with a hard line document saying we are going to take a blind eye to orders that may otherwise lessen the onset of the virus. I think it is a bad optic and draws a line in the sand. This can be used as a political motive, where in a time of crisis, politics should never play a part in any decision making. Until this point, our community has worked together and I want to maintain that.
The best practice is voluntary compliance, and that's the most common response from what I am seeing out there. If deputies receive a complaint about a large group of people hanging out in violation of an order, their first action will be to educate the people involved about the orders. If the problem persists, then further action can be taken.
I also have to look at the problems that may be created by having such orders in place, such as increased conflicts, increased criminal activity and the increased risk of officer safety. Stress is playing heavily on those who can't work, can't support their family and can't pay their bills.
The orders often look very grey and contradictory.
• You can come from another state, but cannot see friends and family that live locally. This could have more to do with interstate issues, which we rely on federal guidance on.
• You cannot come up to a second residence to stay, but you can come up and ride the trails, as long as you go home the same day and maintain social distancing.
• You can ride an ORV or canoe, but not a boat with a motor. The thinking behind this appears to be that with no motor, only smaller boats will be used, making it more likely that a single household is out together. Maybe it could have been done by length of boat or other formula.
For the real answer, I have no clue. What I do know is sometimes officials make decisions without getting the input of other officials, or speaking to all the experts.
As you can see, enforcement of these orders becomes very confusing. Plus, we have to consider if the prosecutor will follow-through by charging an individual who is in violation of the order. It makes no sense to issue a citation if it will later be thrown out or not prosecuted. Then, the issue is exacerbated because there is no teeth on enforcement.
Law enforcement and first responders don't have the choice on who they come in contact with when responding to a call. Every time you pick up the phone and make a complaint, we generally have to make contact with an individual.
Consider that. We have no idea on the background of the individual nor who we are speaking with. We have no idea the level of exposure that we may come across. An infected officer is of no help if COVID-19 gets spread to other officers or our community for subsequent complaints.
We are in a unique situation in Lake County. Sixty percent of our property owners don't live here. As we are sympathetic to all property owners, nonresidents have to make sure they limit the exposure to the residents that live here year round. Non-essential travel, and "fun" times on the trails, should not outrank the need for health and safety. It also is about everyone's safety because if our two ambulances, first responders and small nearby emergency room get overwhelmed, everyone will suffer whether you live up here full time or part time.
For every person that is up here, our office wants to be there for you. If everyone would think of the entire issue as a whole, this would be a nonissue. Unfortunately, this is never the case. As 95% of nonresidents follow the rules, there is always that 5% who are going to break the rules and mess it up for the majority.
I have instructed my staff to be diligent on following these orders, but also have a reasonable approach on enforcement. There is a big difference on outright disobedience and someone trying to maintain their livelihood. Every complaint is handled on a case-by-case basis. Does every speeder get a ticket, no. Do we throw the book at every violator, no. We will maintain the same professionalism we have been giving our community, and treat you as individuals.
What we are doing is responding to complaints as we have always done. We are not stopping people at random, and we are not knocking on doors. We simply don't have the resources or time to do this. After speaking with my colleagues at the local Michigan State Police post, they also concur with this approach and are dealing with things in the same manner.
When it comes to recreational enforcement, we have always been more to educate versus writing tickets. However, I have told my deputies to have a zero tolerance approach during this crisis, especially when dealing with ORV's. You need to know the rules if you choose to come up here during this difficult time. If you don't know the rules, don't come up here unless you expect to receive a citation when you try to slide by.
However, there will come a time that the good intentions may bring on more problems, which we will all have to deal with. At what point that is, I don't know, but we may be getting there.
When the ban is lifted, unfortunately we will be dealing with lingering issues and the subsequent problems created by this crisis for a very long time. There will be legal challenges and lawsuits on who did what, who had what authority, where rights were violated, who will pay for what and reevaluating the response to another national crisis.
In the meantime, our county as a whole is doing everything possible to limit the exposure and comply with the orders. Most businesses have taken the time to remodel and continue with take-out or pick-up.
In the last few weeks, we have handed out thousands of pounds of food to local residents. Churches, schools, civic groups and area businesses have been handing out food to children for breakfast. Members of the community have been donating personal protection equipment as well as donating and making protective masks.
These are just a few things that show how great this community comes together in the time of need or crisis. That needs to be our focus as we see about re-opening Michigan.
As we looks toward the future, I will have to evaluate any new Executive Orders to see if they are applicable or what the the actual intent is.
At the end of the day, my responsibility is our community as a whole. I am concerned about the health and well being of our residents, the success of our local businesses, the safety of our community, as well as honoring my oath of office.
With all things considered, you understand the challenges we face. We will get through this, as a community.
This information is provided to you for clarification of specific laws and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law.
If you have any questions on any specific topic, you can always email me your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, it is a honor serving and working for all of you who live, visit and work in Lake County. Working together, we can make a difference.