Pennsylvania Mandatory Business Shutdown – Criminal Charges, Fines or Just Warnings?
Pennsylvania continues to force businesses throughout the Commonwealth to remain closed following Governor Wolf’s March 19th order. Since that time the Governor has updated the list of “life sustaining or essential businesses” to include some law firms, laundromats, construction companies who work on healthcare facilities, in addition to grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and businesses pertaining to information technology, logistics, or transportation. The Commonwealth also allows businesses such as banks and tax preparation services to operate.
If a business was not included as “essential or life sustaining” it could have applied for an exemption status, but that application time has since expired. Right now, it appears that Pennsylvania is issuing more warnings than fines designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If a fine is issued it is typically as either a violation of a Department of Health regulation ($10-50 fine) or a violation of the state’s Disease and Prevention control law of 1955 ($25-300 fine). Both charges are summary offenses and no more serious than a speeding ticket!
I have written in the past that state police or local law enforcement can cite a person for additional offenses such as disorderly conduct (summary offense) and even terroristic threats, resisting arrest, or aggravated assault if the incident between police and an alleged violator escalates.
Bars & Restaurants – More Serious Penalties
Governor Wolf’s order closes all bars and restaurants and forces them to offer only take out services. If a bar or restaurant violates the order it could face a harsher penalty of a fine between $100-500; these penalties are still summary offenses. The Governor has indicated that a person could be charged with a 2nd degree misdemeanor for obstructing the administration of law or other government functions, although this is highly unlikely.
Obstruction of Justice & Resisting Arrest Criminal Charges?
In Pennsylvania, a person is guilty of obstruction where he or she intentionally obstructs, impairs, or prevents the administration of law or other governmental function by force, violence, physical interference, or obstacle. See Title 18 § 5101. This criminal charge does not include resisting arrest or flight by a person charged with a crime. Under Section 5102 obstruction does include picketing if it is done in such a way that it interferes with, obstructs, or impedes the administration of justice with the intent of influencing any judge, juror, witness, or court officer in the discharge of his duty. This offense would not include individuals who chose to recently protest in Harrisburg about the shutdown. The intent of this criminal statute is to prevent the unlawful influence of a judge, jurors, or intimidating a witness testifying in court. This is the reason why judges frequently instruct those sitting in the courtroom to remain silent and, at times, threaten to hold individuals in contempt of court for failing to do so. Resisting arrest is a misdemeanor of the 2nd degree and it occurs when an individual prevents a police officer from making an arrest or creates a substantial risk of bodily injury to the officer in doing so.
New Jersey is taking a much different approach than Pennsylvania in terms of enforcement of the shutdown order. In New Jersey, the Attorney General’s office has published a list of offenders which it continues to update daily. In New Jersey, while offenders could face indictable criminal charges, it appears that the Garden State will resolve all these matters in municipal court. Remember that New Jersey, unlike Pennsylvania, does not classify crimes in the same way. Pennsylvania has 3 categories of crimes and these include the following:
New Jersey, however, classifies criminal charges as crimes and offenses. Offenses are confined to municipal court while crimes are heard in its Superior Court (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degree). If you are charged during the shutdown in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, contact our criminal defense law firm 24/7.