Police departments in southern Maine say they are planning a measured, educational approach to enforcing the governor’s latest and most restrictive emergency order restricting all but essential activities throughout the state.
While some states, including Rhode Island and Florida, are stopping cars with out-of-state plates in an attempt to enforce self-quarantine requirements and identify people coming from high-risk places, Maine police say they have no such plans, and are thankful for the broad cooperation so far that their communities have shown. Although citations, or even arrests, are always an option, most departments prefer not to take people into custody for non-violent offenses in the midst of a global crisis.
“If citizens are practicing social distancing we are assuming they are following the governor’s order and have a legitimate reason for being out and about,” said Westbrook Police Captain Sean Lally. “If there is a violation, we would prefer to handle most encounters informally with education being the focus.”
Mills’ order was set to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Since Mills announced the order Tuesday, some departments have been flooded with calls, especially in York County, where residents who live near the border often flow seamlessly between New Hampshire and Maine as part of their daily lives. People are worried that officers will set up checkpoints at the border, or begin random stops to determine if someone’s trip out of the house complies with the new state requirements.
Sheriff William L. King Jr. waved off those fears, and emphasized that although the restrictions imposed by Mills are broad and affect everyone’s lives, the order is also woven with caveats and allowances to permit people the freedom to continue to live their lives, buy food and groceries, go to the doctor and, for workers in essential roles, work their normal jobs.
King said he expects his officers will continue to take an educational approach if and when they have a legal reason to stop a car or interact with the public.
“We can’t just stop people,” King said.”It’s illegal. We need a reason to stop them. What is very clear to me is a lot of this is interpretation. We’re going to be on an educational mission.”
Likewise, Maine state police troopers cannot stop cars simply because they are out on the roads or because they bear out-of-state plates, and police are not likely to initiative a traffic stop simply to determine if someone’s car trip complies with the order, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police and the Department of Public Safety.
There have been no statewide directives to police departments about how to enforce the order, McCausland said, Mills’ order and her statements have been clear enough. Mills has said she doesn’t want a police state and expects Mainers to comply voluntarily.
Police need articulable suspicion – a reasonable belief that someone broke a law or committed an infraction – before initiating a traffic stop. Officers are trained to routinely ask about a person’s origin and destination, but those questions won’t be the primary reason for pulling someone over.
“We are looking for voluntary compliance and the vast majority of Mainers are doing that,” McCausland said. “If a police officer sees an overt violation, I think their first task will be to educate that driver about what the proper procedure is.”
As of Wednesday, Mills’ order brings Maine in line with 37 other states that have enacted statewide directives for all residents to stay home. Governors of all but five states had placed some limitation on daily activities to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In Portland, where a similar stay-at-home order has been in effect for more than a week, police will continue to be low-key, said Chief Frank Clark. Portland’s order says violators could face a $500 penalty, but the department has not had to issue a single fine. As long as folks continue to be reasonable with officers and comply with the governor’s directive, Clark said he sees no major changes ahead.
“We are taking a measured approach in our efforts,” Clark said. “I want to thank people for their compliance and for their cooperation when they are contacted by our officers. I think most folks in the city are taking the current situation seriously and are complying with the best practices that are spelled out in these orders.
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