As the coronavirus spreads through the United States, various local, state, and federal government officials and agencies are starting to create more restrictive measures to control the behavior of the population. In addition to the travel restrictions passed in the previous weeks, some of these new restrictions have included curfews and mandatory closings of all non-essential businesses. Some state governments are starting to force places such as restaurants to close and order people to remain indoors at certain hours. Health experts believe that large scale social distancing and minimizing contact between people, especially in groups of more than 50, are the most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus.  

When considering various actions that can be taken to control people’s behavior during emergencies, the most extreme decision that can be made by the government is to declare martial law. 

The definition of martial law

Martial law is when the government uses its power to declare an emergency and allow the military to intervene and control civilian life. This is often done by governments during wars or other serious, life threatening events that tend to cause chaos and civil unrest. Many basic civil rights such as those to assemble, protest, and receive a hearing after an arrest are suspended during this time. In the United States, the constitution describes how such powers can be used in Article I, section 9. The text specifically talks about rebellion, invasions, and threats to public safety as being sufficient to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. When the government does this, it essentially means that the normal process by which the government needs to arrest, offer a trial, and convict someone to detain them for any offense can be altered in the name of efficiency. The U.S. constitution does not allow for the military to totally control government and law enforcement functions, as many of these powers are still reserved for local police and courts even during states of emergency. However, once martial law is declared it may be difficult to respect these boundaries. 

In practice, periods of martial law can be extremely difficult for the population. There is always some kind of underlying emergency that already threatens public safety, in addition to a large military presence that attempts to control people’s daily actions. It is certainly possible that someone can be hurt or killed by the government with little recourse during a period of martial law. 

Can the government declare martial law due to the virus outbreak?  

It is possible that the government can declare martial law during a virus outbreak. In the short term, government interest in controlling the population and preventing large scale death, illness, and healthcare problems would outweigh the needs of people to go about their normal business. The U.S. has already used its power to declare martial law in the past after events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Civil War, and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

Because there is presently no military threat and a small number of Americans have actually died from the virus, it seems that curfews and closures should be sufficient rather than the imposition of martial law. However, there is the possibility of more extreme measures if conditions worsen. 

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