Statement from Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott concerning criminal enforcement of Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Orders. This is relative to the closure of certain businesses and the restraint on individual freedoms. I have from the beginning held grave concerns about the constitutionality of the statutory construct under which Gov. Lee exercised this authority and, even assuming the statute is constitutional in general, the constitutionality of its specific use in this situation. To date, I have remained quiet publicly about these concerns out of respect for Gov. Lee and the office that he holds. However, I believe it is now important for me to be transparent on my stance given the most recent announcements and Executive Orders as well as the growing reaction to these restrictions in our community.
As Gov. Lee continues to modify these orders, they are becoming increasingly vague and arbitrary. How does it make sense that a restaurant with a capacity of 400 can serve 200 people but a barber who rarely has more than 5 people in his shop at a time can’t ply his trade to support his family? How does it make sense that a tattoo artist in Knox County can operate legally but one in Coffee County can’t? How does it make sense that people can go to a gym to workout but a high school football team can’t workout together in its own facilities? How does it make sense that a group of people can gather together to eat at a restaurant but the same group can’t gather in a home or public park to do so? How does it make sense that urban areas where there is the biggest concentration of COVID-19 can have less restrictions than rural areas where there has been minimal impact?
I swore an oath to uphold the Constitutions of Tennessee and the United States. A criminal statute that is vague, arbitrary and isn’t uniformly applicable is unconstitutional. I believe that is the current status of the Executive Orders that, by statute, are enforceable by criminal sanctions. As part of the checks and balances of our government, I have prosecutorial discretion to choose not to prosecute any crime and this discretion has been consistently upheld by many Tennessee and US Supreme Court decisions including one as recently as two (2) months ago. In order to fulfill that oath, I believe that I cannot
prosecute any person for simply engaging in legal activities such as operating their lawful business. I also believe that the citizens of Coffee County wouldn’t stand for such action on my part nor could I reasonably expect a jury to convict someone for that crime. Accordingly, I made it clear within law enforcement circles at the outset that I will not and have not taken action to prosecute anyone for the violation of an Executive Order.
Equally concerning, I believe that there is a growing public safety threat from those who are acting or will act out of frustration brought on by the financial, emotional and other pressures caused by these restrictions. I feel compelled to make a public statement indicating that I won’t prosecute anyone for engaging in otherwise lawful activity simply because it violates Gov. Lee’s Executive Orders. I can’t allow the implicit threat of the use of the authority of my office to enforce what I believe to be unconstitutional actions.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I encourage you to follow all reasonable health guidelines. I strongly recommend that the most vulnerable stay isolated to the greatest extent possible. I sincerely believe that Gov. Lee has made every decision based upon what he believes is best for the citizens that he serves. He has been required to make many very difficult decisions using incomplete, inaccurate and often contradictory information. I continue to pray for his wisdom in leading this wonderful State in this and all situations.
Also, there may be other severe sanctions if the Executive Orders are not followed including the loss of a business license. I am only speaking for the fact that there will be no criminal sanction in Coffee County, Tennessee for a violation of an Executive Order issued in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. These other civil sanctions are outside of my control.