What If I Refuse to Quarantine?


COVID-19 Quarantine



Several people have asked me what happens if they refuse to quarantine themselves?  Or if they refuse to stay-at-home?  Whenever there is a threat to the United States the government limits our civil liberties in most cases.

As a Civil Rights Attorney, people are asking questions about their rights. Here are some answers to some common questions.

1. Am I Required to Quarantine or Isolate?

A favorite law school answer is: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety, and welfare of those within its borders. In other words, states may quarantine an individual, community, or area to protect the surrounding community.  Because there is a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, limited supplies in high demand, they strongly encourage citizens to self-isolate if they have been exposed to COVID-19. Unfortunately, if you were exposed to the coronavirus in a different country and then took a flight to the United States, government officials at the airport may detain you and force you into quarantine.

If you are under quarantine, you may have visitors.   However, they may limit physical interaction to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

If they quarantine you, then you have the right to challenge it.

What is the difference between quarantine and isolation?

In the Bible there were people infected with leprosy.  There are instructions in the Bible on how to quarantine people with leprosy.  In the mid-1600s, they government inspected ships arriving in Boston Harbor for diseases and local laws allowed quarantines for people suspected of yellow fever or smallpox.

In 1944 the federal Public Health Service Act, established and regulated federal quarantines for the first time. States get their power to enact quarantines from the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The government defines quarantine and isolation as:

Quarantine: Compulsory separation, including restriction of movement, of people who potentially have been exposed to a contagious disease, until it can be determined whether they have become sick or no longer pose a risk to others. They could make this determination, for example, based on the time elapsed from their potential exposure.

Isolation: Separation of people known or suspected (via signs, symptoms or laboratory criteria) to be infected with a contagious disease from those who are not sick to prevent them from transmitting the disease to others.

Using quarantine or isolation powers may create sensitive issues related to civil liberties. Individuals have rights to due process of law, and isolation or quarantine must be carried out in the least restrictive setting necessary to maintain public health.

2. Who Enforces a Quarantine or Isolation?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine people within their state. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or groups of individuals. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the authority to detain and examine people arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying a communicable disease.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order.  This allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

However, state and local officials primarily make most decisions about whether to shut down schools, close major events, or implement a mass quarantine.

As the CDC explains on its website, “the federal government derives its authority for isolation and quarantine from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.” That clause permits Congress to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.”  Federal law does not provide for enforcement of  quarantines of individuals who remain within a single state.

In Indiana, Indiana Code 16-19-3 governs the powers of the State Department of Health.

Ind. Code § 16-19-3-9 Authority. The Department of Health may establish quarantine and do what is reasonable and necessary to prevent or suppress disease. When a public health emergency exists, the department can enforce orders within local jurisdiction and exercise all powers of those local health authorities.

In Indiana, violating the Stay-at-Home order could result in a Class B misdemeanor.

3. What Are My Rights?

The government may confine people against their will if those individuals present a danger to themselves or others, even if the person has not committed a crime.  In Addington v. Texas (1979), the United States Supreme Court held that individuals with severe mental illnesses that present a threat to their own safety, or to the safety of others, may be involuntarily confined to a mental hospital.

In Addington the court held that the government must prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that such confinement is justified. Fortunately, this is a much higher standard of proof than courts apply in civil cases. In civil cases the standard of proof is by the preponderance of the evidence.  A citizen’s interest in the outcome of a civil commitment proceeding is of such weight and gravity that due process requires the state to justify confinement by proof more substantial than a mere preponderance of the evidence.

Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear that this standard of proof would apply to coronavirus quarantines. Addington held that “civil commitment for any purpose constitutes a significant deprivation of liberty that requires due process protection.”  They restricted this case to the specific circumstances of a person with a severe mental illness.

Are Mandatory Quarantines Coming?

Mandatory quarantines may seem like they are coming to the United States, but that has not happened yet. If the United States resorts to quarantines, to control the spread of coronavirus, people will  challenge it.

Most likely, the courts will be very deferential to public health officials.  If you believe they violated your civil rights, contact an attorney that has experience in defending your rights.  Contact the Law Office of Mark Nicholson at 317-667-0718.