Update (6/27/2020): A clarification from Sheriff Fields can be read in its entirety at the end of this article.
Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields on Friday joined a growing chorus of law enforcement leaders in announcing he will not enforce Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide order requiring face coverings in public places.
“To be direct and clear, neither I nor the members of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will be enforcing this mandate from the governor,” Fields wrote in a statement shared through the community notification platform Nixle. “The reasons, you may ask? There are two of them. No. 1, because the order is unconstitutional. And secondly, because the order itself is unenforceable.”
Similarly worded statements were issued by multiple sheriffs and police chiefs across the state before Cooper’s order took effect at 5 p.m. on Friday. The mandate warns that non-complying businesses could be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor.
In a phone interview, Fields said his determination on the order’s constitutionality, or lack thereof, was based on guidance from the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association.
“That’s what I based my information on,” Fields said. “My phone kept blowing up (with calls about the order), and I said we can put out something short and simple saying this is how it’s going to be.”
A memo emailed Friday to members of the Sheriffs’ Association does not say the executive order violates the U.S. or state constitutions.
“We are not aware of and have not found any legal authority for the Governor to direct any law enforcement officer to not enforce G.S. 14-288.20A or any other criminal law violation,” the association wrote, referring to the general statute that makes it a misdemeanor to violate any restriction established in an executive order. “No such authority is contained in our criminal law and no such authority can be found in the General Statutes that authorize issuance of the Governor’s Executive Orders. Under current law, whether or not to charge a person with a criminal law violation of the Governor’s Order requiring the wearing of a face covering is within the discretion of law enforcement.”
In an online FAQ, the state advises residents to report violations of the order by calling “local law enforcement’s non-emergency line.” Fields offered different advice.
“Here’s my recommendation: they need to call up there to Raleigh,” he said. “If people don’t want to wear a mask, that should be on them.”
The executive order states that authorities are “not authorized to criminally enforce the face covering requirements (…) against individual workers, customers, or patrons.” It includes exemptions for people with medical or behavioral disabilities that make it difficult for them to wear masks, though individuals are expected to use the “honor system to identify if they are within one of the exceptions.”
The order allows police to file trespassing charges against any employee or customer who does not wear a face covering inside a business and refuses to leave when asked by the establishment's management. But Fields said law enforcers would normally treat any individual who ignores a request to leave private property as a trespasser, face covering or not.
“Now if a business calls up here and says ‘look, I’ve got somebody in here that doesn't want to wear a mask and I don’t want them in my store,’ we’ll respond,” he said. “And if they don’t want you in the store, you’ve got to leave.”
Fields isn’t the only local law enforcement official who won’t be cracking down on residents for not wearing masks. Chief Carl Colasacco of the Aberdeen Police Department said he instructed his officers on Thursday not to enforce the mandate.
“If a business calls and they want a person removed because they are not wearing a mask, we will respond,” Colasacco said. “If the person refuses to leave the business, they will be charged with trespassing. The business has the right to make that decision.”
Chief Earl Phipps of the Pinehurst Police Department noted that the language of the order, particularly the section prohibiting criminal enforcement against individual patrons in public places, gives law officers little latitude to actually carry out the mandate.
“We’re hoping everyone will voluntarily comply, but it says clearly in the order that it’s unenforceable,” Phipps said. “We’re hoping that our citizens will do the right thing, use all the precautions and hopefully we’ll get through this thing together as a team.”
Chief Bob Temme of the Southern Pines Police Department was out of the office until July 6 and did not respond to an email from The Pilot seeking comment.
On Saturday afternoon, Sheriff Fields released the following clarification to his earlier statement.
Apparently there has been some confusion and misinterpretion from my statement that I made yesterday. While my stance has not changed, I would like to clarify further. I have attached the enforcement portion of Executive Order 147 below. You will see that law enforcement can not charge individuals for failing to wear a mask. You will also see that it is the responsibility of the business owners to enforce employees and patrons to wear masks, and I support them and will assist them if a patron fails to wear a mask and they refuse them service. That assistance will be in the form of us enforcing trespassing laws. Store owners always have the right to refuse service, and I feel confident they will do their best to keep their patrons safe. I encourage people to read the enforcement portion of the Executive Order in it’s entirety.
F. Enforcement of Face Covering Requirements.
1. Citations under this Section shall be written only to businesses or organizations that fail to enforce the requirement to wear Face Coverings. Operators of businesses and organizations are entitled to rely on their customers or patrons' statements about whether or not they are excepted from the Face Covering requirements, and businesses and organizations do not violate this Executive Order if they rely on such statements.
2. Law enforcement personnel are not authorized to criminally enforce the Face Covering requirements of this Executive Order against individual workers, customers, or patrons.
3. However, if a business or organization does not allow entry to a worker, customer, or patron because that person refuses to wear a Face Covering, and if that worker, customer, or patron enters the premises or refuses to leave the premises, law enforcement personnel may enforce the trespassing laws and any other laws (other than N.C. Gen. Stat.§ 14-288.20A) that the worker, customer, or patron may violate.
Click the image below to read the full text of the executive order.
Staff writer Laura Douglass contributed to this report.