HARLINGEN — Across the Rio Grande Valley, police departments are ratcheting up enforcement of state and local orders aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
In many cities, police officers are issuing hefty citations to motorists violating the shelter-in-place order mandating they stay home if they don’t have good excuses to drive.
At midnight, officers are enforcing a curfew preventing residents from leaving their homes between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m.
In Willacy County, law enforcement agencies are staging checkpoints, questioning motorists along main roadways.
And in Cameron County, County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. is warning authorities are considering setting up checkpoints.
“We are looking at all of our options — setting up checkpoints in order to question individuals as to why they’re out and about — whether or not it’s an essential activity. Are they on their way to buy groceries, to the hospital, to the doctor, to buy medicine at the pharmacy?” Treviño said during a press conference.
Treviño seemed to dismiss some residents’ concerns the executive orders violate constitutional freedoms.
“They’re making it sound like the sacrifice we’re asking them to do is just beyond the pale — it’s an infringement of their personal constitutional rights and, ‘God forbid, I want to be able to go golfing today or this weekend or whenever or I want to go fishing,’” Treviño told reporters Tuesday.
In Harlingen, officers are looking for “probable cause” to pull over motorists, Commander David Osborne said.
“For the normal daytime hours, we are looking for standard law enforcement things, anything that gives us probable cause,” Osborne said, adding officers issued 14 citations for shelter-in-place violations and one ticket for a curfew offense from March 25 to last Monday.
“When it comes to midnight to 5 a.m., it’s all the probable cause to pull over a vehicle,” he said.
Osborne warned repeat violators could face arrest.
Beefing up patrols
In San Benito, officials are putting more officers on patrol to beef up enforcement.
From patrol cars, they’re using their speaker systems “to notify people of the order,” interim Police Chief Fred Bell stated.
So far, officers have issued eight citations and five written warnings.
“If a person violates a law, he or she is subject to being stopped by law enforcement,” Bell stated. “Officers have discretion of issuance of warnings and/or citations when enforcing the law. However, SBPD is increasing the number of patrol units who will focus on compliance and enforcement of the order and the number of warnings will quickly become citations.”
Violators face fines of $500 for their first offense and up to $1,000 for any additional offense, officials posted on the city’s Facebook page.
Setting up checkpoints
In Willacy County, the Sheriff’s Department began setting up checkpoints Tuesday, Maj. Andres Maldonado said.
By Wednesday, he said, deputies had issued four citations for violations of the shelter-in-place order.
Deputies are looking for “people who don’t have essential business for being out at those times,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, they’re questioning “the reasons for their travels.”
After questioning, motorists might get escorts, Maldonado said.
“It’s a possibility the officer or deputy may follow them to their destination,” he said. “If they say they’re going to the doctor’s office in Raymondville, it’s a possibility the officer or deputy will follow them just to make sure that’s where they’re going.”
Working main intersections
In Raymondville, officers are pulling over motorists at the city’s busiest intersections, Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said.
“They’re stopping traffic at the main intersections and seeing what they’re doing because they were out and about, probably visiting people, instead of being home,” he said.
By late Wednesday afternoon, he said, officers had issued 24 citations for shelter-in-place violations.
The day before, officers were enforcing the order from the city’s busiest intersection, Gonzales said.
“They’re at the intersection of Seventh and Hidalgo and they’re stopping everybody,” he said Wednesday. “They’re going to give you a ticket if you’re on the street and you’re supposed to be sheltering-in-place. They’re just asking you where you’re going. There’s got to be a legitimate reason — whether you’re going to get groceries, to the doctor or to the pharmacy to get medicine.”