What can the government legally do when faced with doomsday scenarios like a rapidly spreading epidemic, devastating natural disaster or horrifying terrorist attack?
This month, New York state released an official manual to help courts determine answers to questions like these in the event of an apocalyptic event.
From the New York Times:
Quarantines. The closing of businesses. Mass evacuations. Warrantless searches of homes. The slaughter of infected animals and the seizing of property. When laws can be suspended and whether infectious people can be isolated against their will or subjected to mandatory treatment. It is all there, in dry legalese, in the manual, published by the state court system and the state bar association.
The "New York State Public Health Legal Manual" as it is called, asserts that, once the state has declared an emergency, it can indeed impose quarantines and curfews, seize property, restrict public assembly and suspend laws.
It notes that the suspension of laws must be done with consideration of constitutional rights, but also says "This should not prove to be an obstacle, because federal and state constitutional restraints permit expeditious actions in emergency situations."
The manual provides a list of potential terrorist offensives including smallpox, anthrax or botulism attacks. It also addresses very difficult ethical questions (what the Times dubs "gruesome what-ifs") such as who gets treatment if the number of victims outweighs the resources to help them.
The Times has more on the manual and its intended uses.