In this column, we usually discuss freight. However, in this installment of PARCEL Counsel, we will explore a question relating to people, specifically, whether a governmental authority can legally force a person into isolation or quarantine even if they are a key player in a company providing essential services in the supply chain.

The short answer is “Yes.” Moreover, the governmental authority can be at the federal level, the state level, or even a local health department.

“Isolation” is defined by the relevant laws as “the separation of persons who have a specific infectious illness from those who are healthy and the restriction of their movement to stop the spread of that illness.” “Quarantine” is defined as “the separation and restriction of movement of persons who, while not yet ill, have been exposed to an infectious agent and therefore may become infectious.”

The exercise of the broad power to isolate or quarantine a person can result in a deprivation of a person’s individual liberties. For instance, an action taken that would force a person into mandatory self-quarantine would be nearly the same as a person who committed a crime being put into “house arrest.”

Regardless of one’s personal opinions as to whether or not a governmental authority should be able to do these things or how they should do them, the US Supreme Court made it clear more than 100 years ago in the 1905 case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts that governmental authorities do indeed have such a right.

The US Supreme Court had before it a situation where the state of Massachusetts had passed a law making it a criminal offense not to be vaccinated for smallpox with a $5 fine for failure to do so. Mr. Jacobson refused to comply. He was subsequently tried and convicted leading to an appeal all the way up to the US Supreme Court.

The Court had little difficulty in concluding that the state of Massachusetts statute was constitutional:

“The authority of the state to enact this statute is to be referred to what is commonly called the police power. Although this court has refrained from any attempt to define the limits of that power, it has distinctly recognized the authority of a state to enact quarantine laws and 'health laws of every description'.”

The Court then gave a hypothetical example:

“An American citizen arriving at an American port on a vessel in which, during the voyage, there had been cases of yellow fever or Asiatic cholera, he, although apparently free from disease himself, may yet, in some circumstances, be held in quarantine against his will on board of such vessel or in a quarantine station, until it be ascertained by inspection, conducted with due diligence, that the danger of the spread of the disease among the community at large has disappeared.”

Sound familiar? As stated, although a state or municipality has such broad powers, they must be reasonably calculated to achieve the stated goal. Further, an individual who may be subject to an isolation or quarantine order is not left without any recourse at all. Under the concepts of “due process” under the US Constitution, an individual is entitled to the right to notice, the right to counsel, the right to a hearing, and the governmental authority must demonstrate a reasonable belief for seeking the detention of that individual.

All for now!

Brent Wm. Primus, J.D., is the CEO of Primus Law Office, P.A. and the Senior Editor of transportlawtexts, inc. Previous columns, including those of William J. Augello, may be found on the PARCEL website.

This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2020 issue of PARCEL.