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NYS Sheriffs Association Statement on Thanksgiving Gatherings

Written By Editor on 11/23/20 | 11/23/20

Since the first COVID-19 orders issued by the New York State Health Department,  Sheriffs across the state have been responding to thousands of complaints of  violations of those orders. They have been doing what they can, within the law and  the Constitution, to address those complaints. The criminal laws have very limited  applicability with respect to those complaints, and in most cases use of the criminal  laws would be unwise. Fortunately, our citizens have, for the most part, willingly  complied with advice and encouragement to follow health directives. We think that  is the best approach and we continue to advise and encourage all our citizens to  comply with guidance issued by state and federal health agencies, and to exercise  caution and common sense. So far, that approach seems to have worked, helping  New York achieve one of the lowest infection rates in the country – without having  to apply heavy-handed law enforcement tactics. 

Recently, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order which limits “non-essential  private residential gatherings” to no more than 10 individuals. That has caused  great consternation among many of our citizens, who envision armed officers arriving at their doors to count the number of people around the Thanksgiving  table. Many Sheriffs and other law enforcement leaders have felt compelled to  allay those concerns by assuring citizens that officers will not be randomly coming  to their homes on Thanksgiving Day to count the number of people inside. That  would be neither practical nor Constitutional. The Governor has responded by  dismissing those serious concerns on the part of local law enforcement, saying,  “Law enforcement officers don’t get to pick and choose which laws they will  enforce”. We find that comment ironic, and disingenuous, since the Governor has 
directed that his own State Police do not have to enforce the order. Apparently, it  is another case of “do as I say, not as I do”, such as we have seen with many other  political leaders. He has also called Sheriffs “dictators” for following the  Constitution rather than his orders, which we also find ironic.
We do not know if the Governor’s limit on home gatherings to ten individuals is the  right number or not. That is a decision for science, not us, to make. We do know,  however, that the Governor has attempted to foist upon local law enforcement an  impossible task. How are officers to know, without violating citizens’ right to  privacy and other Constitutional rights, how many people are in the home? How  are they to determine if the family gathering is to be deemed “essential” or “non essential”? If twelve people normally reside in the home, are the officers to order  two of them to move out? If eleven individuals are found to be present in the  home, who is to be charged with violating the order, all eleven or just the last guest  to arrive? Or is it only the homeowner who is in violation? Are officers really  supposed to arrest guests who don’t stay 6 feet apart or who fail to have on their  face masks during dinner?  

All of those are serious questions which make it impossible for law enforcement to  know how to legally enforce the Governor’s order. They are questions that could  have been addressed if we had a functioning State Legislature, creating clear and  enforceable laws after input from those who would be impacted by them. Instead  we are faced with an unenforceable dictate issued without any consultation with  law enforcement or the public as to enforceability. 

We believe that rather than issuing orders that cannot be practically enforced, and then blaming law enforcement when they are not enforced, the Governor would  better serve the people of New York if he were to use his position to encourage citizens to use common sense and voluntarily adhere to the guidance of state and  federal health officials. We would gladly join him in that. We know the citizens of  our communities, and we believe they would be far more likely to voluntarily follow  his recommendations than his orders. 

In conclusion, we urge all our citizens to keep informed on the best steps to take to  protect themselves, and others, from the spread of this terrible disease. We urge  you to listen to our public health officials. We urge you to limit your exposure to  those outside your household as much as you reasonably can. If we all do that, we  will sooner be able to get back to normal. We in law enforcement do not have the  resources nor the legal authority to force you to do those things. It is a matter of  individual responsibility and we are confident that you will all voluntarily rise to the  occasion.

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