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ACLU objects to giving State Police power to pull over cars with N.Y. plates in response to coronavirus

Director of Rhode Island ACLU calls measure an unconstitutional “blunderbuss approach” to the pandemic

Governor Gina M. Raimondo gives the daily COVID-19 update from the State Room of the State House on Thursday afternoon. Behind her is Colonel James M. Manni, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.Kris Craig/The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Thursday ordered anyone traveling to Rhode Island from New York to stay quarantined for 14 days, saying the State Police would stop cars with New York license plates to help halt the spread of coronavirus.

“This is different, this unusual, this is radical,” Raimondo said. But, she said, “I believe it’s necessary to confront the dangers that we are seeing in the New York City metro area and the fact that we are 180 miles from there.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union objected, calling the order an unconstitutional “blunderbuss approach.”

“While the Governor may have the power to suspend some state laws and regulations to address this medical emergency, she cannot suspend the Constitution," said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.


“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,” he said.

Raimondo announced the measure as she reported that Rhode Island has 33 new cases, bringing the statewide total to 165 and marking Rhode Island’s largest single-day increase.

She said she is immediately mandating that anyone traveling to Rhode Island from New York -- whether by plane, train, bus, or car -- to quarantine themselves for two weeks once they arrive here.

“I understand this is an extreme measure," Raimondo said. But she noted that about half of the coronavirus cases in the country are in the New York metropolitan area.

“New York City is a hot spot -- their infection rate is skyrocketing -- and they are so close to Rhode Island," she said. “There is a lot of panic in Rhode Island right now related to folks from New York coming to Rhode Island."


To enforce the new restriction, members of the National Guard will be at Peter Pan and Greyhound bus stops and terminals and at Amtrak train stations, and the State Police will flag down cars with New York license plates as they enter the state, Raimondo said.

Brown said the ACLU recognizes that strong measures are needed to address the coronavirus crisis. “But giving the State Police the power to stop any New York-registered cars that are merely traveling through the state is a blunderbuss approach that cannot be justified in light of its substantial impact on civil liberties," he said.

While Raimondo has taken other steps that carefully balance public health and civil rights, “this one does not,” Brown said. "We urge her not to follow through with such an ill-advised and unconstitutional plan.”

Colonel James M. Manni, superintendent of the State Police, said troopers will stop passenger vehicles with New York license plates but not commercial vehicles or tractor trailer trucks that might be carrying food, supplies, or medicine.

“This will not affect interstate commerce in the state of Rhode Island,” Manni said. Officers will ask drivers where they are going and if they are passing through the state, officers will send them on their way, he said.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island recorded the largest percentage of residents filing unemployment claims last week of all US states -- 6.36 percent -- as the Labor Department reported Thursday morning that a stunning 3.28 million people had filed new claims for the week that ended March 21. The previous weekly high was 695,000 claims in October 1982, according to data going back to 1967.


Raimondo said Rhode Island needs to ramp up its coronavirus testing quickly. She said she wants to see 1,000 tests per day by this time next week, but now there’s fewer than 500 tests per day taking place. She noted that in South Korea, people were tested quickly and put in isolation.

The state is trying to set up its own supply chain testing equipment, plus masks and other personal protective equipment, but it’s a “Hurcelean task," she said. The hardest item to find is ventilators, she said, asking for assistance from manufacturers and suppliers.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, said state officials know that the the number of positive tests that they’re reporting does not reflect all the cases in the state. With limited supplies and equipment, the state is prioritizing tests for those who are hospitalized, in nursing homes, and healthcare workers, she said.

So those who have symptoms and unable to get tested should follow quarantining procedures and stay home to keep the virus from spreading, she said.

Alexander-Scott said 23 patients with coronavirus are now hospitalized in Rhode Island. Nine of them are in intensive care units and six of those nine are intubated, she said.

Raimondo said, “It’s a pandemic like we have never faced before,” but she said, “We are not seeing a surge like some other states,” and “we want to stay a step ahead of it.”


She noted that earlier Thursday, state legislative leaders on the Disaster Emergency Funding Board agreed to her request to borrow up to $300 million to maintain cash flow as the coronavirus pandemic chokes off sources of state revenue.

Alexander-Scott said people should not be dining at restaurants and staff there offering take-out should stay six feet apart and avoid groups of 10 or more.

Raimondo said that starting Friday any business will be able to get free tech support via teleconference or over the phone. Many small businesses would like to set up booking system and help people work from home. Call (401) 521-HELP.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate are canceling all floor sessions and committee hearings for the week of March 30-April 3 because of the pandemic.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.