Yesterday, the Albuquerque City Council voted to pass legislation broadening the mayor’s powers during a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below is a comment from Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico. 

“We recognize the very real fear and concern gripping our communities during this uncertain time and appreciate the efforts of elected officials to contain the spread of COVID-19. As we confront this pandemic, some measures, grounded in science and public health, must be taken to protect the health, safety, and civil liberties of us all. While the emergency powers legislation approved last night by the Albuquerque City Council is an understandable reaction to the mounting disease threat, we fear that the Council overreached. Specifically, the ordinance too vaguely defines the term ‘public health emergency,’ and leaves too much discretion as to what could be considered a ‘reasonable threat,’ thereby granting the mayor sweeping powers to shut down businesses and ban people from public spaces in response, for example, to a common flu outbreak. We also have concerns about the extent of the mayor’s new powers and their duration.

In times of crisis, we become susceptible to rash legislation that grants excessive power to government. One need only look to the USA Patriot Act for an example of how the rush to address the community’s fear can result in the making of law that causes unintended consequences and widespread abuse for years to come. Once such changes make their way into our laws, they are onerous to reverse. That’s why other local governments considering legislation like Albuquerque’s should proceed with caution and concern for future generations. Down the line, administrations that are hostile to civil liberties may use this power in unintended ways. 

The ACLU of New Mexico is committed to working with public officials to ensure that New Mexico communities are protected from infectious diseases while they also respect basic civil liberties. As we often said in the years that immediately followed September 11th, 2001, it is possible for our country to be both safe and free.”