COVID scofflaws beware: Cops bringing out the stick in upper valley

Law enforcement in Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt, Pitkin County ready to hand out more tickets

In an effort to try to combat the highest COVID-19 incidence rate in the state, law enforcement officials in Pitkin County said Thursday they will introduce a stick to what has previously been a carrot-based approach to public health order enforcement.

Police in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt, as well as county sheriff’s deputies, will now write misdemeanor tickets for egregious and blatant violations of local public health orders, such as large parties, law enforcement officials said.

“There’s some value in issuing a ticket on scene,” Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Thursday. “Sending a letter a week later that says ‘Don’t do it again,’ is not as clear as a ticket stuck in a hand the night it happens.”

Local law enforcement has been reluctant to write tickets for public health violations during the past 10 months of the pandemic, viewing it as heavy-handed and challenging from a legal and policy standpoint. However, that approach has led to frustration from many in the community who believe public health orders could be flouted by those who don’t respect them without consequence.

But now that Pitkin County is a hotspot with the highest incidence rate of COVID-19 in the state and the county Board of Health decided to close indoor dining at restaurants last week to combat it, that thinking has changed, law enforcement officials said.

“When we first started with COVID, we as law enforcement said we’ll take an educational approach,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Wednesday at a forum hosted by Aspen Masterminds. “We (didn’t) want to slam people.

“But after the last eight months and what we’ve seen, and what the restaurant community has been through, I think it’s best that we also need to include enforcement in this overall plan that we now have.”

Allowing businesses and restaurants to return to as normal as possible is “more important than ever,” according to a law enforcement news release Thursday.

Flagrant disregard of public health orders in the county also affects residents because it leads to more cases and more isolation and quarantine orders, which further disrupts lives already seriously disrupted, said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta.

And, finally, most police officers and sheriff’s deputies have been vaccinated, making contacts with the general public safer, according to the release.

To be clear, police and sheriff’s deputies will not be out on patrol looking for parties, said Linn and Burchetta. They will not write tickets for quarantine violations, which is the public health department’s responsibility, the release says.

“What we’re doing is in response to complaints,” Linn said. “We’re not going to drive around neighborhoods looking for parties.”

Officers will have discretion to write tickets in egregious situations like one that occurred last week, he said. In that case, a tour company brought in a group of college students from out of state and put them up around town in various condos before they proceeded to throw parties, ignore face mask rules and pack into hot tubs, he said.

“They were acting like college students in a non-COVID world,” Linn said. “It’s reasonable to say tickets might have been appropriate (in that situation). It was certainly grating on some of us.”

Tickets could have been issued to individual students or the tour company in that case, he said. Should other parties come to the attention of officers or deputies, it will likely be the host who is ticketed and not guests, Burchetta said.

The ticket for violating the public health order is the highest-level misdemeanor in the state and is punishable by as long as 18 months in jail or a fine of between $500 and $5,000, or both. District Attorney Jeff Cheney is on board with the new enforcement approach, Linn said. Cheney did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

Most of the enforcement will take place in Aspen because that’s where most of the complaints have come from, officials said.

Since Sept. 1, the county has received about 120 public health order-related complaints, DiSalvo said. Of those, three were about situations in unincorporated Pitkin County, while about 13 related to Snowmass Village, said DiSalvo and Snowmass Village Police Chief Brian Olson.

That means Aspen police — who have written a total of three tickets for public health order violations since the pandemic began — will shoulder the lion’s share of the enforcement responsibilities, Linn said.

“We have always been responsive to complaints (about people or businesses violating public health orders),” he said. “But now we’re putting the possibility of a ticket into the mix.”

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