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Madison, Dane County not citing safer-at-home violators
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Madison, Dane County not citing safer-at-home violators

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The Capitol Square was unusually empty in March on the second day of Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order.

Instead of citing a large group of people who chose to celebrate a birthday party two days after Dane County implemented its own stay-at-home order, the responding Madison police officers provided education about the local public health rules to people gathered on the 4600 block of Verona Road. 

Earlier that day, officers broke up a similar gathering downtown without penalizing any participants, the second of four instances acting Police Chief Vic Wahl highlighted in his weekend blog post listing violations of the local public health order. 

Over the weekend — the first after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the statewide “safer at home” directive Wednesday — officers issued verbal warnings rather than citations to violators of the local order that restricts large group gatherings and keeps some businesses closed. 

For now, law enforcement has also been warned against pursuing even more severe penalties, a local official said, after an attorney general opinion Friday advised counties and municipalities not to threaten criminal sanctions in their orders. 

[Dane County reaffirms stay-at-home order as others roll theirs back]

While Dane County’s local directive warns that violations amount to a crime punishable by fine, imprisonment or both, legal counsel for the city and county said both the Madison Police Department and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office have been directed not to pursue criminal sentences. 

Instead, Assistant City Attorney Marci Paulsen said she advised MPD to enforce city ordinances. Issuing similar guidance, Dane County Deputy Corporation Counsel Carlos Pabellón said his office advised the sheriff’s office to “proceed only under our county ordinances.”

That guidance tracks with an informal opinion from Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who advised local leaders to limit enforcement actions “to ordinances or administrative enforcement” — language that came after a host of counties and municipalities withdrew their own orders, with many citing legal concerns. 

Madison and Dane County officials have since reaffirmed their directive is here to stay. 

Over the course of the state’s stay-at-home order and in the early days of Dane County’s own, the MPD has issued one misdemeanor citation for a violation and 14 city ordinance citations. Since May 13, the MPD has not issued any citations for violating the local orders. Verbal warnings have resulted in compliance, according to the MPD.

“From the get-go, MPD command staff guidance to officers, when called to complaints regarding Wisconsin's Safer at Home Order, has been to educate, gain voluntary compliance, and not issue citations to those who are cooperative,” DeSpain wrote in an earlier email. “This position will not change under the new local Dane County/City of Madison order.”

As of May 14, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office had not issued any citations or made any arrests for violations of the stay-at-home order since it began. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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