Upper Valley police say they won’t pull you over just for driving amid stay-at-home order

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2020 9:11:28 PM
Modified: 3/31/2020 9:11:21 PM

LEBANON — As states across the country crack down on “stay-at-home” orders amid the spread of COVID-19, law enforcement officials in Vermont and New Hampshire say they’re focused on awareness rather than penalties.

“The first message is to educate, to try and help people stay informed instead of to come down hard,” Grafton County Attorney Marcie Hornick said. “We’re not a police state.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, which had 570 reported cases around New Hampshire and Vermont as of Monday, both New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott have issued statewide stay-at-home orders. The similar orders call on non-essential businesses to close, and request that people stay in their homes unless leaving for a necessity, which can range from food shopping to exercise.

Scott took the extra step Monday of directing non-residents who have traveled to Vermont, or residents who recently returned to the state after a winter elsewhere, to quarantine for two weeks.

In other states with similar stay-at-home orders, such as Indiana, police are citing people for violating the rule by leaving their homes for non-essential trips, but Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said his department isn’t at that point.

“We’re not stopping people,” as a result of the order, Mello said. “We’re not asking people where they’re coming or going.”

He hopes people will follow the order without police intervention, saying the ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase said his officers are operating similarly, adding that they’re “monitoring the community” like they usually do.

“If we see groups, we encourage the social distancing,” Chase said in an email Monday, but he added that they’re not doing additional traffic stops or seeking travel information from drivers as a result of the order.

Hornick, a former public defender, said police can’t legally pull over a driver just to find out if they’re traveling to the store or driving for non-essential business. Nor can police pull over a driver for having out-of-state plates, she said, calling it a form of profiling.

However, police do have the ability to enforce the governor’s order in some situations, according to Mello. If he or his officers hear about a large gathering where people are intentionally disobeying the order, officers could issue summonses to appear in court for disorderly conduct, he said.

“We’re not going to utilize those powers unless it’s a unique situation and there’s no other way to resolve it,” Mello said.

The approach is similar among municipal police departments in Vermont, despite the state’s more stringent order.

Vermont police cannot stop a vehicle just for having out-of-state license plates, but they are allowed to ask questions about a person’s travel history during a routine police stop, according to Lia Ernst, a senior staff attorney with the Vermont chapter of the ACLU.

“What they cannot do is extend stops to go on fishing expeditions,” she wrote in an email Tuesday.

Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said in an email Monday that his department is not stopping cars from New York or other areas, nor are they checking homes for out-of-state residents, as some police departments in Rhode Island have done.

Police in Hartford have been visiting some of the 11 hotels in town to ensure they’re complying with the governor’s order, which stipulates they can host only vulnerable members of the community and essential workers, such as medical professionals, and see “who’s coming and going,” Kasten said Tuesday.

Vermont State Police have been doing similar checks, including visits to 295 “lodging establishments” around the state on Saturday to make sure they are complying with the order.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has taken some extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Not only do they not stop out-of-state drivers nor question people about their travel, they’re reducing their traffic stops as a whole, said Deputy Thomas Battista.

He said deputies are only responding to emergency cases, like domestic violence disputes.

They’re even stopping fewer people for speeding or other traffic violations, unless the violation poses an immediate risk of harm, he said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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