During an emergency meeting on Sunday, March 23, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson supported the county’s Second Amended Declaration of Local Disaster to impose jail time and fines for individuals charged with violating the county’s emergency order pertaining to the coronavirus.
Even as state officials from both parties urge a reduction in jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tarrant County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the suggested penalties. Individuals and businesses face up to a $1000 fine per violation or 180 days in jail for violating Tarrant County’s COVID orders.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions regarding Tarrant County’s COVID-19 orders.
What is Tarrant County’s Rule-Making Authority in an Emergency?
Section 418.173 of the Texas Government Code says it’s an offense to fail to comply with a state, local or interjurisdictional emergency management plan. Here’s the language of the law which applies to Tarrant County’s COVID order and other orders across the state of Texas:
Sec. 418.173. PENALTY FOR VIOLATION OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PLAN.
(a) A state, local, or interjurisdictional emergency management plan may provide that failure to comply with the plan or with a rule, order, or ordinance adopted under the plan is an offense.
(b) The plan may prescribe a punishment for the offense but may not prescribe a fine that exceeds $1,000 or confinement in jail for a term that exceeds 180 days.
What Emergency Orders are in Place in Tarrant County?
The following restrictions are currently in place in Tarrant County. Violating these rules could result in fines and jail time.
- All public or private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a single household are prohibited. Nothing prohibits the gathering of members of a household or living unit.
- Individuals cannot occupy non-essential businesses, including bars, lounges, theaters, malls, private gyms, hair and nail salons and tattoo shops. (Essential services such as grocery stores, pharmacies, homeless shelters and transportation systems may remain open.)
- Houses of worship are closed. (However, needed staff can attend to produce online videos for congregation.)
- In-house dining at restaurants remains closed but drive-in, drive-through, takeout and delivery are still permitted.
- All elective medical, surgical, and dental procedures are prohibited anywhere in Tarrant County.
- Nursing homes, retirement, and long-term care facilities are to prohibit non-essential visitors from accessing their facilities unless to provide critical assistance or for end-of-life visitation.
- If someone in a household has tested positive for COVID-19, the household must isolate at home. Members of the household cannot go to work, school or any other community function until cleared by a medical professional
Tarrant County DA: Penalty Per Day
During the March 23 meeting, DA Sharen Wilson addressed the Commissioners Court regarding how ongoing violations would be handled. Wilson’s position is that each day is a new offense. As a result, a business that stays open for, say three days despite the emergency order, could face thousands of dollars in fines, and employees and business owners could face multiple criminal counts.
Will Enhanced Penalties Apply to Tarrant County COVID Violations?
Texas Penal Code 12.50 enhances certain offenses by one level if the offense took place in a disaster area. Penal Code 12.50 was triggered throughout Texas when Governor Abbott declared a state of disaster due to coronavirus under Government Code 418.014.
That begs the question: Will the maximum 180 day sentence for violating Tarrant County COVID orders (which is equivalent to a Class B misdemeanor) be enhanced as offenses occurring in a disaster zone? No, because only certain offenses can be enhanced. These offenses are:
Who enforces Tarrant County COVID orders?
Each city will be responsible for enforcing the emergency order. It will be the District Attorney’s Office that prosecutes the violations.
Is There a Shelter in Place Order for Tarrant County?
On March 24, 2020, at 9 am, Mayor Betsy Price announced, along with Tarrant County Judge Glenn Whitley, a Shelter in Place order (which they are calling a Stay-at-Home order) that is effective through April 3, 2020. That order has since been extended to April 30.
Is the Criminal Courthouse Open?
Yes, the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center is still open but only for essential court matters primarily involving in-custody defendants. All jury trials have been canceled until April 20, 2020.
Can You Visit an Inmate in the Tarrant County Jail?
No, inmate visitation has been suspended for everyone except attorneys.
If I’m on Probation, Do I have to Report to My Probation Officer?
Until further notice, only defendants with a scheduled appointment or who are submitted a drug test will be allowed to report to Community Supervision and Corrections. You must contact your officer prior to reporting, even if you have an appointment. Your officer will confirm your appointment before you are allowed in the building. Many check-ins have already been converted to virtual check-ins. Here’s more probationer information.
What Should I do if I’m Accused of violating a Tarrant County COVID Order?
If you or a loved one is facing a fine or jail time for violating Tarrant County’s COVID orders, it’s important to contact an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible. We can help. Contact us at 817-203-2220.