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Quarantine and Isolation Law

Also see: Tuberculosis; Police Power; Information for Courts

Quarantine and isolation law - which are legally the same - is core to the state's police power. All states have the intrinsic power to isolate and quarantine individuals who pose a threat to the public. This was done routinely through the 1970s for diseases such as tuberculosis. In the 1980s and 90s, civil libertarians, in particular AIDS rights activists, most of whom were civil liberties lawyers rather than public health lawyers, pushed states to weaken these powers, claiming they were unconstitutional.  That was not true, as even a casual reading of the Rehnquist Court's opinions illustrates, but there was not much push back because there was not an active public health bar and because too many health departments were run by health directors who were experts in personal health, rather than public health. At the same time, business, especially small business, was active at the state level pushing legislatures to weaken state agency enforcement powers.  While many of these folks were conservatives who had no trouble with things like quarantine, they moved for across the board legislation to limit state agency authority, and this did huge collateral damage to health departments. Health departments are very vulnerable because they are not well funded and staffed, and have fewer legal resources than many other agencies. These laws could be undone to give state agencies back their traditional powers, but it would not address the core problem: the lack of public health expertise and resources to develop and carry out these interventions.

For a history of public health powers, including quarantine and other restrictions, and how these have been treated by the Supreme Court through the 1980s, see: The Jurisprudence of Prevention. For additional information, see:Edward P. Richards and Katharine C. Rathbun, "The Role of the Police Power in 21st Century Public Health", Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 1999;26(6):350-7. Also see:

Non-judicial due process: Richards EP, Rathbun KC. Making state public health laws work for SARS outbreaks. Emerg Infect Dis Feb 2004. Original link: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol10no2/03-0836.htm (Companion CDC article) (Maryland code referenced in the article)

Richard P. McNelis, Problematic Application of Florida Administrative Law to Police Power Public Health Actions 68 Louisiana L. Rev. 1145 (2008) - detailing problems in misapplying the Florida APA to public health actions.

Florida Department of Health White Paper on Quarantine - 2007

Quarantine & Isolation FAQ for Florida Judges and Attorneys - 2008

A case of tuberculosis on an airplane and how it was managed by the CDC.

WHO, Tuberculosis and air travel: guidelines for prevention and control. 2nd Edition (2006) (archived copy)

Congressional Research Service, "Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation Authority," updated January 23, 2007.

For general articles, click here.

Also see Habeas Corpus, which discusses several quarantine cases, and the general section on the Police Power.

Also see: SARS - Critical Documents

Seattle King County WWW site - lots of useful info and forms.

See Habeas Corpus

Failure to quarantine because of administative costs: CDC, Outbreak of Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis --Texas, California, and Pennsylvania, June 08, 1990 / 39(22);369-372.

NACCHO - Isolation and Quarantine: Issues to Consider (2006) - NACCHO Emergency Preparedness WWW site

Isolation and Quarantine Standard Operating Procedure-Public Health – Seattle & King County - 2005

Iowa Health Department Communicable Diseases page, with sample forms.

MMWR - Postexposure Prophylaxis, Isolation, and Quarantine To Control an Import-Associated Measles Outbreak Iowa, 2004


In re Washington, 2007 WI 104 (Wis. 2007) - Court upholds jailing of uncooperative tuberculosis carrier.

Miller v. Campbell Cty., 722 F. Supp. 687 (D.Wyo. 1989) - Temporary forced evacuation from home is not a taking for 42 USC 1983

Is a smallpox quarantine false imprisonment? - Crayton v. Larabee, 110 N. Rep. 355, 220 N.Y. 493 (N.Y. Ct. of App. 1917)

County is liable for expenses of supplies provided to persons in home quarantine for smallpox - County of Saguache v. Decker, 10 Colo. 149, 14 P. 123 (Colo. 1887)


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