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Can You Get Arrested for Going to the Beach?

Last weekend, anticipating a flood of beachgoers going stir crazy from Governor Gavin Newsom’s “stay home” order, several coastal counties (including Los Angeles and San Diego counties) closed their beaches to the public. Most beachgoers flocked to neighboring counties that did not close their beaches. Some, however, defied county closure orders and went to closed beaches.

Can you get arrested for going to a beach closed pursuant to a county order? Yes, you can.

California’s Health and Safety Code Authorizes Arrests for Violations of County Health Officers’ Orders

Section 120175 of California’s Health and Safety Code provides as follows:

“Each health officer knowing or having reason to believe that any case of the diseases made reportable by regulation of the department, or any other contagious, infectious or communicable disease exists, or has recently existed, within the territory under his or her jurisdiction, shall take measures as may be necessary to prevent the spread of the disease or occurrence of additional cases.” (Health & Saf. Code § 120175.)

The term “health officer” includes county, city, and district health officers, and city and district health boards. And as explained by the California Court of Appeal, section 120175 imposes “a mandatory duty on a health officer to take measures to prevent the spread of contagious and communicable diseases.” (AIDS Healthcare Foundation v. Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 693, 702.)

While the Health and Safety Code sets forth various measures that health officers are authorized to take, including quarantine and isolation for contagious and communicable diseases, section 120175 states quite capaciously that health officers are authorized to take all “measures as may be necessary.” As such, measures such as quarantine set out in the Health and Safety Code “are not exhaustive,” and health officers are vested with broad “discretion to act in a particular manner depending upon the circumstances.” (Ibid.)

Given this broad discretion, county health officers are authorized under the statute to close beaches within their respective counties “as may be necessary.”

In addition to authorizing county health officers to order the closure of beaches within their respective counties, California’s Health and Safety Code criminalizes violations of health officers’ orders. “Any person who, after notice, violates, or who, upon the demand of any health officer, refuses or neglects to conform to, any rule, order, or regulation prescribed by the department respecting a quarantine or disinfection of persons, animals, things, or places, is guilty of a misdemeanor.” (Health and Saf. Code § 120275.)

The Health and Safety Code further authorizes county sheriff and local police departments to enforce health officers' orders within their respective jurisdictions.

“The sheriff of each county, or city and county, may enforce within the county, or the city and county, all orders of the local health officer issued for the purpose of preventing the spread of any contagious, infectious, or communicable disease. Every peace officer of every political subdivision of the county, or city and county, may enforce within the area subject to his or her jurisdiction all orders of the local health officer issued for the purpose of preventing the spread of any contagious, infectious, or communicable disease.” (Health & Saf. Code § 101029.)

Defenses

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the “right to remove from one place to another according to inclination” is “an attribute of personal liberty” protected by the Constitution. (Williams v. Fears, 179 U.S. 270, 274 (1900).)

In Coimbra Law Firm’s view, because the freedom of movement is part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, any arrest or prosecution for violating Health and Safety Code section 120275 is constitutionally invalid unless, at a minimum, it can be shown that the health officer’s order under which the arrest and prosecution were conducted was actually necessary. That is to say, arbitrarily stating that an order is necessary is insufficient as far as the Constitution is concerned. Necessity must be established by reference to findings of fact.

Confused about what your rights and obligations are under California law and county orders?

Coimbra Law Firm encourages you to comply with all federal, state, and local laws. If you are confused over what your rights and obligations are, or if you have been cited or arrested for violating a county health officers’ order, contact one of our experienced attorneys today.