Ebola’s been in the news lately, with several infected individuals on American soil. New York and New Jersey have begun to quarantine individuals arriving from West Africa who have had contact with infected people, and a nurse subjected to quarantine threatened a legal challenge. So, what’s the law? And what are the potential criminal law implications?
Control measures generally. My colleague Jill Moore recently wrote this summary of North Carolina’s overall approach to addressing communicable diseases. Generally, G.S. 130A-144 grants authority to the Commission for Public Health,
working with with implementation assistance from local health directors, to prescribe control measures designed to limit the spread of infectious diseases.
Misdemeanor to fail to comply with control measures. As I discussed in this prior post about knowingly exposing others to communicable diseases, it is a misdemeanor to fail to comply with control measures. More serious charges may be appropriate when a person purposefully attempts to infect another with a deadly disease.
The law of quarantines. The CDC explains here that isolation orders separate infected persons from those who are not infected, while quarantine orders limit the movement of those who have been exposed to a disease to see whether they become ill. Either type of order is a potential control measure, and both are referenced specifically in the portion of the North Carolina Administrative Code that addresses control measures. 10A NCAC 41A.0201(d).
A quarantine order appears to have been imposed in Texas on members of Eric Duncan’s family. (Duncan died of Ebola earlier this month.) And as noted above, New York and New Jersey have begun quarantining arrivals who have been exposed to Ebola. The first person subject to quarantine threatened a legal challenge, claiming that she was deprived of her liberty without due process of law. Most legal experts were skeptical of the claim, believing that the government has broad authority to protect the public health from disease outbreaks, as noted here and here. However, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, just minutes ago, agreed to release her to her home in Maine, so we likely won’t get a court ruling – unless Maine decides to quarantine her.
Law enforcement role in quarantines. I have been asked about the extent to which law enforcement officers may act to enforce quarantines. If an infected person is restricted to his or her home, may an officer be stationed at the home to ensure that the person does not leave? Could the officer use force to prevent the person from leaving? I couldn’t find much case law on the issue, but my sense is that law enforcement could take reasonable steps to enforce a quarantine order. Cf. Camara v. Municipal Court of City and County of San Francisco, 387 U.S. 523 (1967) (reaffirming validity under the Fourth Amendment of “prompt inspections, even without a warrant, that the law has traditionally upheld in emergency situations,” including health quarantines). This article in Police Chief magazine notes the somewhat uncertain legal environment but concludes that “it is probable that in the event of a significant emergency requiring quarantine of portions of an area’s population, most courts would find authority for such actions.” Exactly how far an officer could go in enforcing an order, I don’t know. Let’s hope that we don’t have occasion to find out.