New Jersey (and many other states) is under lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This has imposed serious hardships on everyday people, and many people are struggling to adapt to the new normal.
Gov. Phil Murphy recently vowed to prosecute those who do not conform with the coronavirus restrictions. Under N.J.S.A. A:9-49, a person may be charged with a disorderly persons offense for violating these or any other emergency or temporary acts.
Penalties and Fines
A violation of Emergency and Temporary Acts is disorderly persons offense. A conviction for violating the coronavirus lockdown can result in up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. The conviction will also result in a criminal record that can impact employment, as well as limit housing and educational opportunities for years.
In addition to this, a person could be charged with other applicable offenses, including Contempt, Criminal Trespassing, Disorderly Conduct, or Disturbing the Peace. Some of these offenses can be charged as fourth- or third-degree crimes (equal to felonies), which can result in a prison sentence and more severe fines.
What are the Coronavirus Restrictions?
During the lockdown, people must stay indoors except when:
- Purchasing goods from essential businesses (see below), including pharmacies, supermarkets, and restaurants (for takeout)
- Seeking medical attention
- Visiting family or other close relations
- Reporting to or performing work functions, if part of an essential business
- Engaging in outdoor activities alone or with immediate family members
- To escape a reasonable threat to one’s health or safety (e.g. a fire)
- At the behest of law enforcement or other authorized personnel
Essential workers are permitted to act as needed to perform their jobs. The order defines essential workers as those who work in the following fields:
- Health care and public health
- Law enforcement, public safety, and first responders
- Food and agriculture
- Energy employees
- Water and wastewater
- Transportation and logistics
- Public works
- Communications and information technology
- Community-based government operations
- Critical manufacturing
- Hazardous materials
- Financial services
- Chemical workers
- Defense industrial base
Nearly all businesses are ordered to cease brick-and-mortar operations. Only those deemed essential may remain open, which includes:
- Ancillary stores within healthcare facilities;
- Auto mechanics and the maintenance/repair services of car dealerships;
- Convenience stores;
- Grocery stores, farmer’s markets and farms that sell directly to customers, and other food stores, including retailers that offer a varied assortment of foods comparable to what exists at a grocery store;
- Hardware and home improvement stores;
- Liquor stores;
- Medical supply stores;
- Pet stores;
- Pharmacies and alternative treatment centers that dispense medicinal marijuana;
- Retail functions of banks and other financial institutions;
- Retail functions of gas stations;
- Retail functions of laundromats and dry-cleaning services;
- Retail functions of mail and delivery stores;
- Retail functions of printing and office supply shops;
- Stores that principally sell supplies for children under 5 years old.
Businesses listed above cannot be charged with an offense under N.J.S.A. A:9-49. However, the following businesses have been explicitly ordered to close and can be charged:
- Racetracks, including stabling facilities and retail sports wagering lounges.
- Gyms and fitness centers and classes.
- Entertainment centers, including but not limited to, movie theaters, performing arts centers, other concert venues, and nightclubs.
- All indoor portions of retail shopping malls (except restaurants with their own external entrance).
- All places of public amusement.
- Cosmetology shops, barbershops, beauty salons, hair braiding shops, nail salons, electrology facilities, and spas.
- All municipal, county, and State public libraries, and all libraries and computer labs at public and private colleges and universities.
For more see COVID-19 Restaurants and Bars Restrictions.
What is a Violation of the Coronavirus Restrictions?
N.J.S.A. A:9-49 establishes penalties for those who violate terms of an emergency or temporary order. The primary focus is to ensure the safety of each NJ resident. A person who disregards the coronavirus restrictions or a similar order/act can be charged with an offense if the violation:
- Jeopardizes the health, welfare, and safety of other people
- Contributes to the loss of or destruction to property
- Hampers, impedes, or in any way interferes with any person who is performing any function authorized under this act (e.g. such as interfering with police actions or impeding medical professionals from doing their job)
- Drives any motor vehicle in a prohibited area or in any other manner contrary to the rules of the act
- Goes near or enters a prohibited area
- Refuses to obey the lawful orders or cooperate with any person authorized to perform a function during the emergency
These orders apply to more than just individuals—a business can also be charged. During the coronavirus lockdown, businesses considered to be non-essential (see above) can also be charged and fined for refusing to close their doors. This is because remaining open, especially if workers are asked to come in, puts others at risk of contracting COVID-19 and further spreading the illness.
For more see COVID-19 Restaurants and Bars Restrictions.
How To Beat A Violation of the Coronavirus Restrictions
A person or business that has been charged with Violating an Emergency or Temporary Act for not adhering to coronavirus restrictions should seek the help of an attorney right away. To beat this kind of charge, it must be shown how or why the action(s) in question conformed with the restrictions in place.
For example, a person who is charged for going over to a neighbor’s house may be able to show that he/she was concerned about a carbon monoxide leak. In another scenario, a person could avoid conviction by showing he/she was attempting to purchase or was returning from having purchased essential goods.
With the novel coronavirus, the most challenging part of the offense concerns jeopardizing “the health, welfare, and safety of other people.” This is because any kind of person-to-person contact—or even being less than 6 feet away from another person—risks spreading the virus and potentially infecting others.
This is why hiring an attorney is so critical. An attorney can analyze the facts of the case to determine the best chance of avoiding a conviction. In many cases, the best course may be to negotiate with prosecutors to reduce the charge to a lesser offense that may not result in a criminal record.
Consequences for a First Offense
Violations of Emergency and Temporary Acts are extremely rare, and prosecutions of those who violate them have been virtually unheard of until now. However, Gov. Murphy is pushing to prosecute those who violate the coronavirus lockdown. As such, police will be aggressive in enforcing the restrictions.
Likewise, prosecutors may seek the harshest possible penalties in order to deter others. Those who are charged will urgently need the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney to minimize or avoid the worst possible consequences.
Consequences for Juveniles
Young people seem to be the ones most often disregarding coronavirus lockdowns in the U.S. and elsewhere. Juveniles (under 18) can be charged with an offense under A:9-49. It is unknown how serious police and prosecutors will be about pressing charges against juveniles for violating these rules.
In the best case scenario, a youth may simply be escorted home or ordered to comply with the restrictions moving forward. However, those who seem to have little regard for the risk their actions create may be charged with this or other offenses. The same may be true of those with a history of run-ins with law enforcement.
The parent or guardian of any child formally charged with violating coronavirus restrictions should contact an attorney right away for help. An attorney can fight to get the charges dismissed or reduced to a lesser offense with fewer penalties and no risk of a criminal record.
Expunge A Conviction for Violating Coronavirus Restrictions
While it may not seem like a big deal now, odds are that a conviction for this kind of offense will begin to affect one’s life in the future. Employers may see someone who disregards emergency orders as someone who does not follow directions well, or who is not reliable in urgent situations.
Thankfully, this kind of offense can be expunged from one’s criminal record. If the violation is the only offense on the record—or the record has 5 or fewer disorderly persons offenses in total—then an expungement petition can be filed 4 years after completing the sentence. Even better, it may be possible to apply for an Early Pathway expungement after just 3 years.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Should I Contact?
If you or someone you love has been charged with violating New Jersey’s coronavirus restrictions, contact an attorney for help right away. The attorneys at Rosenblum Law have helped many people beat or reduce similar charges. We can fight to protect your rights and reduce the chances of a conviction. E-mail or call Rosenblum Law at 888-815-3694 today for a free consultation about your case.