Earlier this month, the federal government took an unprecedent step in the fight against COVID-19 and began enforcing the Quarantine Act.
A relatively mysterious piece of legislation, the Quarantine Act is rarely—if ever—referred to or used by our government authorities.
Although it was passed in 2005 following the SARS epidemic, it was thankfully unneeded until now.
At this point, however, public officials have decided to dust the document off in the battle against COVID-19.
According to elected officials, the Quarantine Act has what it takes to help minimize the impacts of the pandemic on our population and to stop the spread of the virus.
So, what can we expect?
In summary, increased police powers and new penalties when it comes to international travel.
The main objective of the Quarantine Act is to contain the spread of communicable diseases through screening, health assessments, medical testing, and quarantining.
In order to do this, it grants law enforcement agencies increased power and flexibility in issuing penalties to those who fail or refuse to comply with orders issued under it.
As any process aimed at halting the spread of a virus is integrative, with many moving parts, the Quarantine Act provides peace officers with wide-ranging powers in order to exercise their duties and ensure compliance.
The Quarantine Act allows officers to ask relevant questions in order to determine whether they pose a risk with respect to a communicable disease and to provide the officer with any information or record in their possession that they officer may require.
If a traveller has reason to believe they may be sick or have a communicable disease, they have a positive obligation to disclose this to a quarantine officer and they must also comply with screening measures. Refusing to answer questions or undergo a health test may result in an arrest.
Travellers entering B.C. through Vancouver International Airport or land-border crossings are expected to fill out a detailed self-isolation form and to verbally present their self-isolation plans to authorities for approval before moving forward.
Under the Quarantine Act, peace officers have vast powers to ensure compliance, including the ability to arrest travellers without a warrant.
While this may sound alarming, warrantless arrests are more common than you may think.
A large number of arrests under our existing and more familiar criminal laws are done without a warrant.
Warrantless arrests can be made based solely on information that was known to the peace officer at the time of arrest. Whether or not it was reasonable—or charter rights were infringed—is up to lawyers to hash out later.
Law can be used against travellers
When it comes to the Quarantine Act a legal test for analyzing warrantless arrests comes built-in.
In order to exercise this stark power, a peace officer must have reasonable grounds to believe that the person has committed an offence under the Quarantine Act itself, such as refusing to comply with an isolation order for example.
Again, this “reasonable grounds test” echoes legal principles that have been long-established by our criminal laws, both in terms of legislation and case law. So, it really isn’t all that foreign to us and should be something that both authority figures and our court systems are familiar with handling.
And it’s important that they are—because the stakes are high.
While some offences under the Quarantine Act may result in tickets with more minor monetary fines ranging from $275 to $1,000, others carry a much greater jeopardy.
More serious offences can result in charges under the Criminal Code and criminal penalties, including a criminal record and even jail time. Others include much more extreme options for enforcement, including fines of up to $1 million and three years behind bars.
The most severe punishments, however, are reserved for the most severe crimes.
Under the Quarantine Act, the maximum penalty applies to circumstances where a person caused a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another through wilful or reckless contravention of the Act itself.
With any luck, cases like these will be very few and far between.
But that doesn’t mean that the Quarantine Act will be dispensable.
In fact, in the months to come, it may become increasingly valuable in the fight against COVID-19.
Once we’ve curbed community-based COVID-19 transmissions, the Quarantine Act will help to ensure that our safety is not threated by travellers, who may unintentionally risk reintroducing the virus without proper precautions in place. It may allow us to lift travel restrictions and to resume life closer to normal again.
In fact, police in B.C. have already made over 500 home visits in order to ensure compliance with self-isolation orders under the Quarantine Act for travellers who have recently returned to Canada from abroad—and we can only expect more in the future.
But any great result must be accompanied by great restraint.
It is important that, as our officials continue to apply the Quarantine Act, they do so prudently and uniformly.
Not only must each territory and province must ensure fluent compliance if all Canadians are to be protected, but they must also ensure that practices and policies are applied in a sparing and nondiscriminatory manner.
This includes ensuring that adequate self-isolation measures are in place for those who are without the financial means to properly comply with Quarantine Act requirements, as well as basing orders in science rather than stereotype.
After all, our future depends on it.