The city of Vinita is facing a lawsuit filed Monday seeking an injunction and court ruling against the city’s recently passed emergency ordinance requiring people to, with some exceptions, stay in their homes or temporary residences and establishes a curfew in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Craig County District Court, seeks both temporary and permanent injunctions against the city enforcing the April 7 emergency ordinance as well as a ruling stating the ordinance is unconstitutional. It is, if not the first, among the first legal challenges to the “shelter-in-place” or “stay-at-home” -type orders that numerous municipalities around the state and country have issued to combat COVID-19.
The suit was filed by Vinita attorney Josh Lee, and, including Lee, names 22 other plaintiffs in the suit, and names the City of Vinita, Mayor Chuck Hoskin ,Sr., Police Chief Joey Babcock, the Vinita City Council and city prosecutor Ryan Olsen as defendants.
Lee said his concern is that the ordinance, rather than being a measure aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 using the least restrictive and least invasive methods possible instead is an unconstitutional violation of residents’ rights, and a “24/7 mandatory lock down, subject to criminal penalties, and not merely a curfew.”
“This places the subjective interpretation of what the Ordinance is ‘supposed’ to mean vs. the plain language of the Ordinance solely upon the police officer making stops on a case-by-case-basis,” the lawsuit states. “This level of subjective and selective interpretation is strictly forbidden by decades of constitutional jurisprudence.”
On April 7, Vinita Mayor Chuck Hoskin declared a state of emergency in the city because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the city council passed Supplemental Emergency Ordinance 3725. The council passed the measure 5-3, with council members Stephanie Hoskin, Danny Lankford, Roger Tyler, Terry Young and Denver Davenport voting in favor and council members Dale Haire, John Swift and Skip Briley voting against the measure.
The ordinance, which establishes a 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. curfew for all residents, requires residents and visitors in the city limits to stay at home or temporary living quarters, except when traveling to or from work and for essential errands, which includes obtaining medications, groceries, gas and going to doctor appointments. It allows people to go outside — as long as they maintain a distance of at least 6 feet — to exercise and for mental health purposes between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The emergency ordinance also prohibits groups of 10 or more people from gathering on city property, dine-in eating at restaurants, on-premise consumption of vaping products at vape shops, required the temporary closure of all theaters and gyms, restricted beauty shops to appointment-only and restricted use of playground equipment.
Penalties for violating the emergency ordinance, which runs until April 24, includes a fine of up to $500, an administrative fee of $150 for each public nuisance abatement and up to 30 days in jail.
Messages from The Frontier to Mayor Hoskin, city prosecutor Ryan Olsen, Vinita Police Chief Joey Babcock — who are all named in the lawsuit as defendants — and Vinita City Attorney Leonard Logan were not returned Monday.
However, in the April 9 edition of the Vinita Daily Journal, Hoskin was quoted as saying he wanted to clarify aspects of the emergency ordinance. People can still make deliveries for loved-ones, get oil changes, or if a person needs “to take a mental health break and go for a walk at 2 a.m., it is essential, but an officer could ask you what you are doing to check on you,” Hoskins was quoted by the Daily Journal as saying. “This does not mean that you are breaking the curfew. It is essential for your mental health.”
Hoskin also references interpretations of the emergency ordinance by “other attorneys” in the Daily Journal article and added “the way we are interpreting this ordinance, the way we are implementing it and enforcing it is the way it is interpreted by our City Attorney. If they want to hash out the wording, they have the right to do that in a courtroom if they choose to do that, but our city attorney does not interpret this ordinance as a 24/7 mandatory shutdown of this city, and our police are not going to be out issuing tickets or checking on (essential worker) letters.”
Lee said the ordinance could be interpreted as preventing people from doing a host of things, such as travelling to a bank or car dealership, going to speak with an attorney, checking on or bringing food to a loved one or neighbor, going hunting or fishing, or even just driving around alone in the city after 10 p.m.
“The Ordinance, via the unnecessarily restrictive provisions of paragraph 8,” the suit states, “makes it illegal to leave one’s home for so many different reasons it must be declared overbroad and not the least restrictive or least intrusive means necessary to achieve any government interest.”
During the council meeting to approve the ordinance, the suit alleges, when council members asked what activities would be allowed under the ordinance “(t)hey seemed to follow the ‘feelings’ and ‘thoughts’ of the Mayor instead of the black letter of the Ordinance,” the suit states.
“What the city is doing, disingenuously, is they’re stating, ‘we really just mean (people may go out for) essential errands,” Lee said. “If you want to know what an essential errand is, you can call the police department and ask. That’s not how criminal provisions work.”
Lee said he is not against the city taking measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, but that there are limits to what governments can constitutionally do, and the ordinance as written does not provide a good basis for why suspending some of those rights would help stop the disease.
“I’m not suggesting they should do absolutely nothing,” Lee said. “It is serious and something we have to take seriously. What I am stating is they cannot just have the power to do anything and everything they want, for whatever reason they want, whenever they want, to whatever extent they want and for however long they want, with whatever penalty they want. Any actions they want to take, they should be respective of the trampling of constitutional rights, because that’s what it is.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, social distancing — physical separation of six feet or more between people and limiting contact with others outside of one’s own home — is the best method to help limit the spread of the disease, which has already claimed the lives of nearly 112,000 people worldwide as of Monday.
As of Monday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,069 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 457 hospitalizations and 99 confirmed deaths related to the disease. Craig County, of which Vinita is the county seat, had 7 confirmed cases and no deaths, according to the health department. Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control states there are nearly 555,000 confirmed cases and nearly 22,000 deaths in the United States.
On March 19, California was the first state to issue a shelter-in-place order requiring people to remain at home except for essential travel. Since then, 41 other states have since followed its lead and issued similar orders.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a safer-at-home order last month that applies to people at greater risk for complications associated with COVID-19, such as those over age 65 or with underlying health conditions, but has yet to issue a shelter-in-place order, calling it an issue of “personal responsibility.”
However, numerous cities in Oklahoma have issued such orders to their respective residents. Norman was one of the first to issue a shelter-in-place order on March 25, followed by similar orders in Oklahoma City and Tulsa on March 28.
Though not all have established curfews in connection with those orders, some — such as Lawton, Pryor, Atoka, Kingfisher, Tahlequah and several others — have. In one case, the city of Altus issued an emergency order requiring social distancing, implementing a curfew and requiring that residents who do go out wear a face mask.
Read the full lawsuit and motion for temporary injunction here: