May 29, 2020 10:40:44 AM
Law enforcement officers in the Golden Triangle issued at least 260 citations for violations of curfew and other temporary restrictions implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic -- about half of which were written in the city of Columbus alone.
Starting in late March, local municipalities began passing 10 p.m-6 a.m. curfews and limiting the number of people who could gather in groups to help spread the curb of the virus. The bulk of the restrictions followed Gov. Tate Reeves, who issued executive orders closing businesses considered "nonessential" and prohibiting individuals from gathering in groups of more than 10 (the order later widened to groups of more than 20).
The curfews did not apply to adults 18 or older who had to go to work, pick up food or medicine or attend to other essential business.
Violators faced fines of up to $1,000, though most of those fines have not yet been paid because those issued citations haven't had their court dates yet. Most municipalities could see fines totaling between $18,000 and $50,000, while Columbus fines assessed to Columbus violators could total more than $100,000.
"In America, we love our freedom, and some people felt like ... their rights were being taken away from them," said Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton, whose department cited 101 people for COVID-19 related restrictions in May alone. "But here's what I want to point out: We were not restricting people's movement. We didn't say that you could not go out or that you could not take care of essential business. We didn't say that. All we were saying is, if you're going to be out, be safe, practice social distancing, wear your masks and wear your gloves. That's all we were asking people."
In Columbus, police wrote 134 citations total, including about eight or 10 to area businesses that remained open when they were prohibited from doing so or allowed too many people in the business at one time. The "bulk" of the citations went to people who violated the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew implemented in late March, Shelton said. The citywide curfew was lifted last week.
In Starkville, police wrote 49 such citations -- 43 for shelter in place violations and six for curfew violations, according to information provided by Starkville Police Department Public Information Officer Brandon Lovelady. In West Point, police issued 25 citations for the catch-all "COVID-19 social distance violations," said West Point Municipal Court Clerk Monica Lairy.
West Point Police Chief Avery Cook said the majority of the 25 citations issued were for those who violated Clay County's 10 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew implemented March 26.
Shelton said he believes Columbus had a higher number of citations issued not only because Lowndes County has more people than Oktibbeha and Clay counties -- particularly given most students from Mississippi State University left Starkville after the university closed its campus and moved to online classes in late March -- but because police were constantly receiving calls from other citizens tipping them off about parties going on in their neighborhoods.
"We had numerous calls from citizens complaining about people in large groups, and especially the parties where people were in large groups," Shelton said. "I think one of the things that helped us is ... there was a lot of concern about people gathering and the rules not being enforced. They were asking that we enforce the rules."
Violations in the counties
Outside city limits, county deputies issued far fewer citations.
"We probably gave 200 warnings but probably less than a dozen citations," Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott said.
When the restrictions were first implemented, deputies, operating under the assumption that most people didn't know about them yet, primarily broke up parties and told those out after 10 p.m. that they had to go home. By and large, Scott said, people complied, and the county's traffic has gradually died down. Those who were cited were primarily younger "knuckleheads," he said, who defied the curfew and gathering restrictions.
"We gave a lot of warnings for the first couple of weeks, but after that it really tapered," he said.
In Lowndes County, Sheriff Eddie Hawkins said his deputies didn't have any problems enforcing the curfew and shelter in place restrictions either. Lowndes County deputies wrote a total of 18 citations, all of which were curfew violations.
Eight of those, Hawkins said, were arrested for other, unrelated charges, such as having a weapon illegally or having drugs in their vehicle when deputies pulled them over for violating the county curfew, which was lifted earlier this month.
"There were a lot of warnings given out," Hawkins said. "We don't do written warnings, we just verbally told them time to take it in and they normally would.
"Everybody pretty much complied with the ordinances and the governor's order," he added. "We didn't have any problems with businesses in the county."
Oktibbeha County had the highest number of rural citations with 34, said Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office Capt. Brett Watson. He said almost all of those were curfew violations -- unlike most of the others, Oktibbeha County's curfew ended at 5 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. -- and that he didn't remember writing citations for anyone at large gatherings where people refused to go home.
"We had a party or two," he said. "And we would go say, 'Look, y'all need to break this party up. (It's) a violation of these executive orders.' They would move on. We didn't have to repeat anything like that. Our goal through all of this was to keep people safe, not to go out and write a bunch of citations."
Each of the city and county curfews have ended, except for Clay County's, which extends through June 9. However, several officers still urged citizens to remain cautious about not spreading the virus.
"I just want the public to understand that the coronavirus is still alive and well," Shelton said. "... Although there's no regulations (any longer) that say you have to, we've still got to practice safety. The numbers in the state are still going up, the number of positive cases and the number of deaths, so we're not out of the woods yet and we need to protect ourselves when we go out. It's as simple as putting on a mask and putting on gloves and social distancing."
Number of citations issued for violation of shelter-in-place orders and curfews
■ Columbus - 134
■ Lowndes County - 18
■ Starkville - 49
■ Oktibbeha County - 34
■ West Point - 25
■ Clay County - fewer than 12
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