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ACLU files 1st coronavirus curfew lawsuit in Puerto Rico

The ACLU said Sunday it is seeking an injunction to block part of Puerto Rico's strict curfew against the new coronavirus, arguing that some of its restrictions are unconstitutional.

The curfew imposed March 15 has shuttered non-essential businesses in the U.S. territory and ordered people to stay home from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. unless they have to buy food or medicine, go to the bank or have an emergency or health-related situation. Violators face a $5,000 or a six-month jail term, and police have cited hundreds of people.

“There’s been no martial law declared, and there are no circumstances for it,” the ACLU argued. “As such, emergency states cannot be used to suspend fundamental rights.”

Kelvin Carrasco, a spokesman for Puerto Rico’s Justice Department, said there was no immediate comment.

It is the first time the ACLU has filed a lawsuit in a U.S. jurisdiction related to a coronavirus curfew. In a statement last month, the ACLU said it will keep monitoring the use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“History teaches that our government is most prone to committing abuses in times of crisis, and we must ensure that broad presidential powers are not misused beyond legitimate needs,” it said.

The government's executive order bars people who aren't part of a “family nucleus” from getting together for meetings, parties or other gatherings. The ACLU suit filed Saturday argues that the state cannot decide who forms part of a family nucleus, nor determine who should be kicked out and fined inside a home.

The lawsuit names three Puerto Ricans who say exemptions to the ban are confusing and that they worry about being arrested as they leave their homes daily to care for elderly mothers, including giving insulin injections. While the order allows people to leave their homes for emergencies or health-related situations, the ACLU argues the order is too vague and leaves too many interpretations in the hands of police officers who haven't been properly briefed.

“The (executive) order pretends that constitutional rights be handed over blindly to the government, and that is unacceptable. The government cannot interfere with who you interact with within your home or define your family nucleus,” the lawsuit states.

Fermín Arraiza, legal director of Puerto Rico’s ACLU chapter, said in a phone interview that another issue is the creation of new misdemeanors, an action that under the Constitution corresponds to the legislative branch.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in Puerto Rico’s Court of First Instance.