Saturday, August 30, 2014

Travel ban sparks questions, constitutional debate

Elkhart County's emergency travel ban was a quandry for some and even a constitutional debate for others.
Posted on Jan. 6, 2014 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Jan. 6, 2014 at 5:43 p.m.

ELKHART — While most people heeded the snow emergency travel ban in Elkhart County, many wondered if their own circumstances merited an emergency.

And a few questioned the constitutionality of such a move.

With nearly a foot of snow on the ground and high winds making conditions worse, Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers announced the emergency status at 6 p.m. Sunday night and posted it on his Facebook page, saying the only motorists on county roads should be emergency personnel and county highway workers.

The request was made in an effort to allow road crews a chance to clear snow from the roads, which began to drift after nightfall. Some vehicles were becoming stuck in the middle of roads, making snow removal difficult, he said later.

Rogers, who considers himself a “constitutional sheriff,” ran into some criticism on Facebook, though, from some who argued they had a right to travel.

Anticipating some concern, Rogers prefaced the topic by saying that the emergency was not a form of martial law or “big government taking over.”

“We need this declaration so that county highway personnel can get the roads cleared. They are wasting too much time pulling people from ditches to get their work done,” Rogers wrote.

Even on Monday morning — with the ban in place — county crews pulled about 20 vehicles out of ditches and drifts, he said.

Many parts of the region received 8 to 10 inches of snow and Rogers said he believed the conditions were the worst in a dozen or so years when the county last announced an emergency.

While many suggested the ban served as good advice, one person on Rogers’ Facebook page sparked a discussion when he asked: Whose rights am I violating if I choose to travel on the roads tonight?

“I have a problem with possibly being cited simply because I’m exercising my right to freedom of movement,” the person wrote.

Another person on a different thread on Rogers’ page suggested his tax dollars helped build the county roads and that he had a right to travel.

Rogers attributed the general outlook to “knuckleheads.”

“It doesn’t matter what we say, there is always going to be a challenge on it.”

Rogers saw a laundry list of circumstances from people who thought their situations might merit an emergency. Eventually, he quit trying to answer each scenario.

“These people need to make that decision. We’re telling you what is going on out there,” Rogers said.

Despite the ban, plenty of people still felt the necessity to travel, especially those who work for hospitals, nursing homes and even the jail, he said.

He said he also believed volunteer snow plows were acceptable.

One of the tougher choices involved workers whose employer planned to be open for business Monday. On one hand, they faced a potential citation. On the other, they might be fired if they don’t report to work.

He said that represented a tough “quandary” for workers.

The county’s emergency announcement did not mention the possibility of citations for motorists, but county commissioner Mike Yoder referenced it on his Facebook page. Other counties issued similar warnings.

Rogers said he was unaware of any citations being issued Monday in Elkhart County and said doing so would only happen under extreme circumstances, especially if somebody became belligerent.

The county also made an exception for a group of drivers with four-wheel vehicles who offered to assist with emergency situations.

That group, he said, was “overwhelmed with calls from hospitals to transport their staff and even our own corrections staff.”

Elkhart County wasn’t alone in seeking to ban non-emergency travel. Numerous counties, including St. Joseph, LaGrange and Kosciusko announced similar bans.

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