The outbreak of the coronavirus in China, recently declared a world health emergency, has many people concerned about how to contain it, and the larger issue of when and how the Government can restrict travel or activities of its citizens in the name of disease control. The search for the right balance between public health and individual liberties sometimes ends up in a courtroom.
There are two key terms to know: isolation and quarantine. Isolation is the separation of a person already infected with a communicable disease, in order to prevent its transmission to others. Quarantine is the restriction on movement of an otherwise healthy person who likely has been exposed to a communicable disease. When a person is already sick, the public health risk he or she poses is usually easier to assess. But when a person has been exposed but does not yet have any symptoms, the specific method of transmission, incubation period of the disease, and mortality rate all are important factors to consider in evaluating that risk. For example, the coronavirus is easy to transmit from person to person, has a relatively short incubation period, and possesses a significant mortality rate.
Under Minnesota law, the Commissioner of Health can put what is called a temporary “hold order” on a person or group of people, but then must obtain a court order to continue the isolation or quarantine. The court has 24 hours to issue its decision, which is made without a formal hearing. If a judge finds probable cause to believe that the isolation or quarantine is warranted to protect the public health, then the conditions can continue for up to 21 days. However, if a person disagrees with a hold order, a full hearing must be held within 72 hours. The Commissioner must show by clear and convincing evidence that the isolation/quarantine is warranted to protect public health. “Clear and convincing” is something less than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in a criminal case, but more stringent than a typical civil proceeding. If a person only disagrees with the treatment or conditions during isolation/quarantine, then the hearing must be held within 7 days. For either type of hearing, the person has the right to a court-appointed attorney at the Department of Health’s expense.
When setting conditions for isolation or quarantine, the location must be the least restrictive means necessary to prevent the spread of the disease. That could range from someone just remaining in their home, to a hospital, to a more secure setting. Department of Health policy requires isolation/quarantine at home wherever possible. People under isolation must be kept separate from those under quarantine, which can be tricky with family members living in the same home. Finally, if a person violates the conditions of the order, the Commissioner may petition the Court for more restrictions to ensure compliance.
Hopefully, the coronavirus will not make any of these steps necessary on a large scale. But the court system is ready to play its part if the need arises.