MANCHESTER, TN (WSMV) — Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott announced Wednesday he will not enforce criminal sanctions for violations of Governor Bill Lee's executive order.
Executive Order 30, which Lee signed yesterday, provides guidelines employers and individuals should follow as businesses begin to reopen in 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties. For example, social gatherings of 10 or more people are still prohibited and businesses like bars, concert venues and bowling alleys must remain closed.
Northcott, questioning the constitutionality of Lee's use of executive order, said he won't criminally prosecute anyone for violating those orders.
"To date, I have remained quiet publicly about these concerns out of respect for Gov. Lee and the office he holds," Northcott wrote in his announcement, which he addressed the the citizens of Coffee County. "However, I believe it is now important for me to be transparent on my stance given the most recent announcements and the Executive Orders as well as the growing reaction to these restrictions in our community."
You can read Northcott's full announcement here. He criticized the governor's orders as "vague and arbitrary."
"How does it makes 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?" Northcott asked (Lee's office confirmed this morning that barber shops can open May 6).
News4 reached out to Gov. Lee's office for comment, but has not heard back. Northcott told News4 he did not discuss this announcement with the governor.
The district attorney also said he believes public safety is at risk.
"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," Northcott wrote. "I can't allows the implicit threat of the use of authority of my office to enforce what I believe to be unconstitutional actions."
News4 asked Northcott if he could provide an example of what he's seen in Coffee County that suggests the public is in danger. He said that the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and executive orders have led to an increase in thefts, burglars and domestic violence. Northcott also said he is "seeing more talk about riots and actions in protest," though he was not specific.
Northcott sent a statement clarifying his remarks:
They don’t intend for it to be a riot but a protest. However, with emotions running high and the pressures of the situation, from a law enforcement perspective, it could quickly turn into a riot. Thus, my using the word riot is running it through the lens of law enforcement evaluation of public safety risks of the situation. As you know, an increasing number of people have begun expressing that they are at the end of their tolerance of these restrictions. This is a growing public safety risk. It just takes one person to escalate a situation like this. I don’t want to see that happen.
Northcott said he "made it clear" in the past to members of law enforcement that he wouldn't prosecute anyone for violating Lee's executive orders. However, that doesn't mean non-compliant individuals and businesses are free from penalty. Northcott said he can only guarantee there will be no criminal sanctions. Civil sanctions are still on the table. A business that defies the executive order by opening too soon, for example, could lose their business license.
Coffee County residents are encouraged to follow health guidelines, Northcott said. News4 asked the Tennessee Department of Health if they had a statement in response to Northcott's announcement.
This story has been updated to include a response from DA Northcott regarding the "public safety threat" he mentioned in his announcement.