Sheriff Eric Samson at his desk in the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s office in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Sheriffs and police in central and western Maine said Wednesday they plan to educate the public about Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order to stay at home rather than arrest people who are in violation.

Mills’ order takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, authorizing law enforcement agencies to criminally charge anyone not staying at home who is not an essential worker or performing an essential task, such as getting food and home supplies, going to the pharmacy or to a doctor’s appointment.

People are allowed to take walks, go to a school for meals or instruction materials and provide care for a family member, friend or animals, according to the order.

Violation of the order can be a Class E misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

As of Wednesday, Mills’ order brings Maine in line with 37 other states that have enacted statewide directives for all residents to stay at home. Governors of all but five states had placed some limitation on daily activities to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Mills urged voluntary compliance and has said she hopes enforcement won’t be necessary.

Regional law enforcement authorities said they are not expecting to stop vehicles to enforce the new order and haven’t made plans to change the way they already approach patrols under the voluntary stay-at-home recommendations issued earlier by the governor.

“We will not be setting up a Police State, PERIOD,” Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. wrote in response to a Sun Journal inquiry. “The Sheriff’s Office will not purposefully go out and stop vehicles because they are on the road or stop and ask why people are out and about. To do so puts our officers at risk. This is not Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia where you are asked for your papers!”

Paris Police Chief Michael B. Dailey echoed Nichols’ sentiment.

“I will not be ordering our officers to go out and conduct patrol details for the sole purpose of stopping motorists and questioning their travel intentions and to overload our justice system with pending cases,” Dailey wrote Wednesday.

Norway Police Chief Robert Federico said in a statement: “We will not be stopping cars just to see who is driving or where they are going.”

Maine State Police troopers cannot stop cars simply because they are out on the roads or because they bear out-of-state plates, and police are not likely to initiative a traffic stop simply to determine if someone’s car trip complies with the order, Steve McCausland, a spokesman for the Maine State Police and the Department of Public Safety, said.

Police need articulable suspicion – a reasonable belief that someone broke a law or committed an infraction – before initiating a traffic stop. Officers are trained to routinely ask about a person’s origin and destination, but those questions won’t be the primary reason for pulling someone over.

Authorities said they plan to inform the public first, then issue a warning, if needed. If the warning goes unheeded, they will consider issuing a summons. Arrest would be a last step, they said.

“As long as people are being reasonable and not causing issues we’re going to leave as is,” Oxford Police Capt. Ricky Jack said. “If we do have to deal with an issue, we’re first going to try and treat it as an educational thing and if it continues from there we will take the issue further to include summonsing and very last resort, arrest.”

Over the past couple of weeks, authorities said they have witnessed a decline in public gathering as the governor’s voluntary recommendation to stay home sand in, they said.

In some cases, public officials had to take action to discourage members of the public from congregating.

A sign in four languages announces the closure of recreation facilities in Kennedy Park in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

In Auburn, Parks and Recreation Department removed basketball rims from the backboards in Union Street Park to keep groups from playing on the courts.

“So, if we see people playing basketball on the courts, we just remind them and say, ‘Hey, social distancing guidelines. This is really not a good idea,” Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen said.

The city has limited access to public areas in an effort to discourage people from meeting there, he said.

Otherwise, city patrols will continue as usual. The new order may be used as an ancillary to enforce another law enforcement issue, he said.

“If we’re interacting with people on something else and they’re in violation of the order, then we’re taking an education approach with people. ‘Hey, this is the order and here’s what it means and this is why you should be home. Adhere to the order and head home,'” he said.

In Lewiston, access to the Kennedy Park basketball courts was locked Wednesday. A sign on the chain-link door read: “In order to maintain social distancing and prevent COVID-19 transmission in our community.”

Lewiston Police Lt. David St. Pierre said: “This is new to law enforcement and we are urging people to heed the warning, to be responsible and to stay home whenever possible, absent an emergency or the person taking part in activities deemed essential.”

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said Wednesday that he expects residents of the towns his deputies patrol will grow to understand better the importance of the governor’s order.

“I think people are seeing the numbers rise of people testing positive for the virus, so it’s getting their attention,” he said.

“I don’t think people, out of the gate, may have realized the significance of it all. It takes a little time for people to adapt to something like this,” he said.

“Most of us have never experienced these types of directives or orders in our lifetime. So, it takes a while to get the message,” he said. “Like with anything, it’s about educating people, whether it’s from a health perspective or an enforcement perspective. And I believe we’ll find, like most agencies have, that a majority will comply.”

All of the law enforcement officials contacted by the Sun Journal urged the public to comply with the governor’s order in an effort to stay healthy and safe and help others do the same.

“The Attorney General’s Office basically told us to try and get voluntary compliance and, if that doesn’t work, issue a summons, if you can do it,” Livermore Falls Police Chief Ernest Steward Jr. said.

“We aren’t any more comfortable about the situation than the general public, but it is our job to try and keep everybody safe,” he said.

Sun Journal Staff Writers Donna Perry and Jonathan Bolduc, and Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

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