By Joe Johnson
The owner of a local gun shop this week filed a lawsuit against Athens-Clarke County that asks a judge to strike down the recently-enacted mandatory emergency shelter-in-place and business closure ordinance.
The ordinance was adopted by commissioners on March 19, days after Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency due to the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that had infected 1,247 Georgians and resulted in 40 deaths as of Wednesday.
Under the ordinance, county residents are only supposed to leave their homes for essential purposes while practicing social distancing of at least six feet.
It also prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people.
The shelter-in-place policy includes a number of exemptions, such as grocery shopping, medical trips, recreation and going to work, and allows essential businesses like doctor's offices, pharmacies, grocery stores and a host of others to remain open while requiring others to close to the public. Restaurants can stay open, but are only allowed to serve food for take-out and delivery.
“However, the effect of the declaration on the residents of Athens-Clarke County goes well beyond simply restricting movement or curfew – it is nothing less than a quarantine of tens of thousands of people who are not infected with the coronavirus nor have they been exposed to the coronavirus,” argues the lawsuit that was filed Tuesday in Clarke County Superior Court by Andrew Clyde, owner of Clyde Armory on Atlanta Highway.
“This sort of baseless confinement of healthy individuals violates the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit argues.
The lawsuit also claims that the ordinance illegally excluded gun shops as being essential businesses.
“The Shelter in Place Ordinance’s overly broad and vague language permits Defendants to arbitrarily interfere with the day-t0-day business operations by permitting them to arbitrarily define which businesses are and are not ‘Essential Businesses,’ which are generally exempt from the Shelter in Place Ordinance.”
In addition to the county government, the lawsuit individually names as defendants County Manager Blaine Williams and County Attorney Judd Drake.
No one from the government returned requests for comment.
Among other things, the ordinance defines essential activities for which residents can leave their homes as “tasks essential to their health and safety or to the health and safety of their family or household members...”
Yet the ordinance does not define exempted essential business “as including gun stores or other stores that sell weapons and tools that are designed for safety and self-defense,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit acknowledges that the county on Monday updated its website to include gun shops as essential businesses, but that is not the same as defining such stores as essential in the ordinance itself, according to Clyde’s attorney Morris Wiltshire.
“Also, Clyde Armory is having its property rights in the form of freedom to do business interfered with by the lockdown,” Wiltshire said. “The Armory’s customers are at best confused and have been given wrong information about the ability of the county government to close the Armory,” leading to loss of business.
“The county has failed to amend the ordinance, failed to provide a due process mechanism to challenge the ordinance and overreached their authority by attempting to legislate where the State Government has already legislated,” the attorney said.
Wiltshire added, “Social distancing during this time of pandemic is a social good and all good citizens understand that. We fully support being good neighbors and helping to make things better for all of us by staying home as much as possible, keeping a 6-foot interval between ourselves and others if we must interact and following the recommended sanitary practices. It is crucial that we all do our part.”
However, he said, “Our government must serve us. We do not serve it. This is particularly true in times of crisis. There are specific limits upon what the government can and cannot impose.”
He said that an attorney’s first duty as an officer of the court is to protect the Constitution.
“This duty applies regardless of whether the constitutional violations are intended to do good. In fact, it is especially when the government is attempting to do good that our rights, liberties, and constitutional form of government are most at risk,” Wiltshire said, giving such examples as the internment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, the post 9/11 Patriot Act, Jim Crow laws, and Prohibition.
“The local Athens government has assumed powers that do not belong to them, belong to the Governor,” Wiltshire said. “Therefore, the ACC Government must be opposed.”