COVID 19 – A Case of Quarantine – and the U.S. Constitution
Justin Phillip Bancale will soon be charged in Missoula Justice Court on a charge of obstructing a local health officer in the performance of duties after being placed in quarantine due to travel restrictions.
Deputy County Attorney Jordan Kilby laid out the charges filed by the Missoula City County Health Department.
“The affidavit sets forth that he called the Missoula City County Health Department repeatedly and tied up the phone lines so that they were unable to do their duties,” said Kilby. “It’s a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. We don’t have a court date yet. We filed the documents and the court is reviewing them and so he has not appeared yet. If the court accepts the documents then there will an initial appearance where he can enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.”
This misdemeanor case has also drawn the attention of Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades, who sought out Bancale and offered to represent him pro bono, due to an interest in the constitutionality of the case.
Rhoades questioned the definition of a pandemic as it applies to a rural state like Montana.
“In Montana we’ve had 16 deaths out of just over a million people,” said Rhoades. “We’ve had less than 500 cases, more than 13,000 tests and we’ve only come up with the 500 number and we have less than 100 active cases, and so is that really a compelling interest to quarantine well (healthy) people in those circumstances?”
Rhoades addressed his client being ordered to quarantine himself even before he was tested for the virus, and his response of allegedly tying up the phone lines at the health department.
“If you haven’t tested someone and if you don’t know whether that person is sick, how can you force him into a quarantine position?” he asked. “If you can’t force him into a quarantine position but you keep harassing him about the fact that you will punish him if he doesn’t obey your quarantine and his reaction is to try to make you stop harassing him, is that justified in these circumstances?”
Rhoades pointed out, in his view, the highly unusual circumstances surrounding the reaction to the COVID 19 virus.
“There’s never been in the history of pandemics a quarantine of the well (healthy) people,” he said. “They always quarantine the sick people. If the facts were that this person had been tested positive, we’d have a different argument, but since he hasn’t been tested positive, it’s pretty hard to make the case that quarantining people who are well is a compelling government interest.”
Rhoades said the core of his argument surrounds the power that health department officials have to alter and disrupt the lives of citizens, and whether there may be a legislative remedy.
“We need to bring this to the attention of the public and the voters so they can understand what their public officials are doing,” he said. “We need to bring it to the attention of the courts so they can rule on whether something like this is legal in this country. If they do rule that it’s legal then the voters can decide to amend the law, so that we don’t have a situation where a county official can tell people that they’re under house arrest when they don’t even have a positive test for some disease.”
Health Department Public Information Officer Alisha Johnson provided the following comment regarding the case before justice court.
‘We received a complaint that someone had traveled out of state and did not follow the Governor Bullock’s quarantine directive. Many of Montana’s cases are due to travel. We were given the responsibility by the legislature and the Governor to address the violations of the directive.’
At the time of this report, no court date has yet been set to hear the misdemeanor case before Missoula Justice Court.