Indiana Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Statewide Mask Order That Makes Not Wearing One Punishable by 6 Months in Jail

Sheriffs in four Indiana counties have said their departments will not enforce a statewide mask mandate announced this week by the governor.

The sheriffs in Sullivan, Hamilton, Delaware and Johnson counties expressed concern that the executive order was not passed by elected state legislators. "The announced order has not been introduced as a bill in the General Assembly and our legislators are not in session," Hamilton County Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush said in a statement.

He added, "The General Assembly could be called into session by the Governor if the 'public welfare shall require it,' but this critical step has not taken place."

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced Wednesday he would sign an executive order requiring all residents and visitors in the state to wear face coverings in public or risk facing a criminal charge.

Those who are found violating the mask order, which is set to take effect July 27, could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail.

Holcomb said during a press conference that even though failure to wear a mask would now be considered a misdemeanor offense, the "mask police will not be patrolling Hoosier streets."

Instead, state officials and law enforcement officers will focus on educating citizens on the health benefits of wearing a mask to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Newsweek contacted Holcomb's office for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.

Delaware County Sheriff Tony Skinner said in a statement that his office is "not the 'mask police'" and that the governor's statewide mask mandate "is a public health issue and not a police issue."

"Calling dispatch to report people allegedly not wearing a mask will overwhelm and overload the dispatch system," Skinner wrote. "This will have serious consequences."

Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess implored residents to contact the state's health department with concerns or complaints regarding violations of Holcomb's order, not the sheriff's office.

"We will not respond solely for allegations of a violation of the executive order," Burgess wrote.

Sullivan County Sheriff Clark Cottom told Newsweek his staff would not be issuing citations or taking anyone to jail for violating the order, after he received multiple questions from citizens.

"A lot of people were very confused and wanted to know what jeopardy they would be in and how we were going to enforce this," Cottom said. He added that his office's decision came down to "enforcement and resources."

"It's not practical to believe that we're going to be able to incarcerate or jail or clog up the criminal justice system with those who choose not to wear a mask," Cottom said.

In their statements, each of the sheriffs acknowledged that businesses across the state had the right to deny service to anyone not wearing a mask. Refusing to comply with a business's request or refusing to leave could be trespassing, and the sheriffs will respond to these calls, they stated.

Newsweek contacted the sheriffs in Hamilton, Delaware and Johnson counties for further comment but did not hear back in time for publication.

Eric Holcomb
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb addresses the media after meeting with former residents and taking a brief tour of the West Calumet Housing Complex on April 19, 2017, in East Chicago, Indiana. Sheriffs in at least four Indiana counties have said their departments will not enforce a statewide mask mandate announced by the governor on July 22. Scott Olson/Getty

Holcomb's announcement was met with mixed reviews from other state leaders.

Attorney General Curtis Hill issued an advisory opinion saying the governor should have called for a special legislative session to pass a law requiring masks in the state. He expressed concern over whether Holcomb had the sole authority to criminalize mask order violations.

"The wisdom of wearing masks—or of laws requiring such measures—is not the issue here," Hills said in the opinion. "Rather, the issue is whether we are following the proper and constitutional processes for enacting laws and whether we are respecting the distinct roles of each branch of state government."

Quakenbush agreed with Hill, saying, "Indiana's attorney general has issued an opinion in which he believes this to be unconstitutional. I strongly concur with this opinion."

The decision to criminalize the mask policy has not been introduced as a bill to Indiana's General Assembly, as legislators are not currently in session.

Todd Huston, speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, told reporters Thursday that Holcomb's announcement caught him by surprise.

"The call for the statewide mask mandate was a surprise to me and our caucus," he said, "and we are working with the governor on the specific language of the executive order. We all share the same goals of flattening the curve, keeping the economy open and ensuring our students and teachers are back in school safely."

Huston, a Republican, is a representative for the state's 37th district, located in Hamilton County. Hamilton and Johnson counties surround Marion County, which is home to Indianapolis, the state's capital and largest city.

Cumulatively, the four counties that will not comply with the executive order represent around 631,000 people in the state. As of July 22, the counties are reporting 4,167 coronavirus cases out of the state's total of 59,602, according to the state's most recently available data.