Rhode Island police began stopping cars with New York plates Friday. On Saturday, the National Guard will help them conduct house-to-house searches to find people who traveled from New York and demand 14 days of self-quarantine.
“Right now we have a pinpointed risk,” Governor Gina Raimondo said. “That risk is called New York City.”
New York is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., on Friday reporting a total of 44,000 cases.
Rhode Island has just over 200, and it has begun an aggressive campaign to keep the virus out and New Yorkers contained, over objections from civil liberties advocates.
Raimondo, a Democrat, said she had consulted lawyers and said while she couldn’t close the border, she felt confident she could enforce a quarantine.
Many New Yorkers have summer houses in Rhode Island, especially in tony Newport, and the governor said the authorities would be checking there.
“Yesterday I announced and today I reiterated: Anyone coming to Rhode Island in any way from New York must be quarantined,” the governor said. “By order. Will be enforced. Enforceable by law.”
Raimondo signed an executive order Thursday that applies to anyone who has been in New York during the past two weeks and through at least April 25. It doesn’t apply to public health, public safety, or health-care workers.
National Guard members will be stationed at the T.F. Green airport, Amtrak train stations and at bus stops. The citizen-soldiers will be following up with people at local residences. The maximum penalty for not complying: a fine of $500 and 90 days in prison.
The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union blasted the new rules, objecting to the collection of motorists’ contact information in particular.
“While the Governor may have the power to suspend some state laws and regulations to address this medical emergency, she cannot suspend the Constitution,” Rhode Island ACLU executive director Steven Brown said in a statement. “Under the Fourth Amendment, having a New York state license plate simply does not, and cannot, constitute ‘probable cause’ to allow police to stop a car and interrogate the driver, no matter how laudable the goal of the stop may be.”
Just before 1 p.m. Friday, state police were set up on Interstate 95 northbound, at the rest stop closest to the Connecticut border. A mile or two before that, motorists could see signs ordering all New York passenger vehicles to pull over at the rest stop.
One trooper could be seen there, checking license plates as cars went by. At the stop itself, a number of officers were assembled around a tent, ready to question vehicle occupants.
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