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Nessel: Police should enforce Whitmer's emergency orders

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Tuesday Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's two executive orders in response to COVID-19 remain enforceable by law enforcement.

Nessel issued a letter of guidance to law enforcement on Tuesday, saying the two orders issued by fellow Democrat Whitmer — her Stay Home, Stay Safe Order and places of public accommodation order — are valid under the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act and that local law enforcement agencies should continue their enforcement efforts.

The GOP-run Michigan Legislature’s failure to pass an extension last week of the state of emergency and disaster declared by Whitmer caused "confusion and frustration" among law enforcement officials throughout the state, Nessel said. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Many law enforcement officials — along with members of the public — contacted her department asking whether the governor's orders were still enforceable, she said.    

The most effective means to contain an infectious pandemic is to keep people away from each other, the attorney general said.

"The governor has done just that by placing restrictions on certain activities to limit social interactions," Nessel said in a statement. "The absence of these restrictions would open gateways for the virus to reach every family and social network in every part of the State.”  

The governor's stay-at-home orders generally require people to remain inside their residences unless they leave for outdoor activity or essential reasons, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy.

Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said he sent Nessel's statement to his 385 members on Tuesday, which should eliminate past confusion.

"Since last Friday, it was up in the air and a lot of police departments were doing enforcement but it was totally unclear what authority that had and what they could do," he said.

"The AG order says it is legal and valid and police have the authority to enforce it," Steveson said.

"With that opinion, now police departments can enforce emergency orders with some degree of certainty," he said. "Police have the opinion of the AG and they aren't on an island trying to figure this out."

If police continue to have questions in gray areas, Stevenson said his members are consulting with county prosecutors.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said it is not his responsibility to enact the law but to enforce the law, and that is what he did before Nessel's statement on Tuesday and it is what he will do going forward.

"It is my obligation to enforce them when they come to my attention and I fully intend to do so," Napoleon said.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office, which is focusing on county parks, has seen great compliance by the citizens of the county, Napoleon said.

"We have had no major issues, and no requests from any local communities to assist with local enforcement," he said.

On Monday,  U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, filed a lawsuit contending that Whitmer's emergency moves to combat COVID-19 violate his constitutional rights and the separation of powers in government.

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, are pictured.

Mitchell, acting in his capacity as an individual, filed the suit in U.S. District Court's Western District.

Whitmer and supporters of the COVID-19 restrictions argue that the measures are needed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients. However, the number of new cases being reported statewide has begun to decline in recent weeks.

Tiffany Brown, Whitmer's spokeswoman, declined Monday to comment on pending litigation. Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, labeled Mitchell's lawsuit a "political stunt." 

jchambers@detroitnews.com