Is the Ebola Quarantine Even Legal?

When can the government quarantine its citizens at gunpoint?

Posted Oct 03, 2014

Quarantine with Armed Guards

Since her boyfriend, Thomas Eric Duncan, was infamously diagnosed as the first confirmed Ebola case in the United States, Louise Troh and her family were asked not to leave their home to avoid risking the possible spread of disease. When Troh tried to leave her apartment anyway, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an unusual legal order called a confinement order. The confinement order forces a quarantine on Troh and her family, preventing Troh, her child, and her two nephews from leaving the apartment, as well as from receiving visitors. To enforce the confinement order, armed guards from the Dallas Police Force have been stationed outside of the family’s home.

Psychological Effects of a Forced Quarantine

Troh has since spoken to the press about her dismay at being quarantined by force. She has said that she is tired of being “locked up” and that she is “going through stress.”

There have been many studies about the psychological effects of being quarantined. Quarantined individuals exhibit a high prevalence of psychological distress. Studies show that 28.9% of quarantined individuals experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 31.2% exhibit signs of depression. Longer durations of quarantine have been associated with an increased prevalence of PTSD symptoms.

When is Quarantine Legal?

For those of you who are wondering about whether this type of isolation and confinement is constitutional, the answer is that yes —  forced quarantines are legal. The federal government derives its authority for isolation and quarantine from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264) authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states. The authority to perform this on a daily basis has been delegated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

State governments derive their authority to isolate and quarantine from their “police power functions.” States have police power functions to protect the health, safety, and welfare of persons within their borders. In 1902, the United States Supreme Court directly addressed a state’s power to quarantine an entire geographic area in Compagnie Francaise de Navigation a Vapeur v. Louisiana State Board of Health, where both the law and its implementation were upheld as valid exercises of the state’s police power.

Can You Challenge a Quarantine?

Imagine that you wake up one morning with armed guards outside of your house, and a court order preventing you from leaving. Is there anything you can do to challenge the quarantine? The answer is yes — by a legal procedure called habeas corpus.

Courts have long recognized an individual’s right to challenge his or her isolation or quarantine by petitioning for writ of habeas corpus. Although habeas corpus is typically used to test the legality of prison sentences, an individual can seek a declaration that the quarantine violated his or her due process.

However, chances of success are slim. Courts appear to give deference to the determinations of state boards of health. In Moore v. Draper, for example, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a quarantine statute that was challenged on due process grounds, denying the petition for writ of habeas corpus. The Court stated: “The constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and property, of which a person cannot be deprived without due process of law, do not limit the exercise of the police power of the State to preserve the public health so long as that power is reasonably and fairly exercised and not abused.” 


See, i.e., Robertson E.,et al., The psychosocial effects of being quarantined following exposure to SARS: a qualitative study of Toronto health care workers. Can J Psychiatry. 2004 Jun;49(6):403-7.d.

Hawryluck, L., et al., SARS control and psychological effects of quarantine, Toronto, Canada, Can J Psychiatry. 2004 Jun;49(6):403-7.

People ex. rel. Barmore v. Robertson, 134 N.E. 815, 817 (citations omitted) (Ill.1922).

Moore v. Draper, 957 So.2d 648, 650 (Fla. 1952), citing Varholy v. Sweat, 15 So.2d 267 (Fla.1943).

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