A recent order from the Linn County health officer that requires businesses to keep records of who visits their establishments for the purpose of contact tracing COVID-19 cases has prompted a federal lawsuit by two businesswomen who contend the order violates their Fourth Amendment rights.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on Sunday, May 10, by the Kansas Justice Institute on behalf of Jackie Taylor, owner and publisher of The Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, owner of Nana Jo’s restaurant in La Cygne. Both women are longtime Linn County residents.
Linn County Health Officer Jay Allen on May 1 ordered restaurants, retail stores, health clinics, dentists, pharmacies, banks, daycare centers and other businesses to compile information on each in-store customer, including the customer’s name and phone number, date of visit, and arrival and departure time.
“This information must be kept and made available to the Linn County Public Health Department upon request for the purposes of Contact Tracing for a minimum of 30 days from time of visit,” the order states.
The federal suit challenges the constitutionality of the order and asks the U.S. District Court to reverse the public health order that took effect Monday, May 4.
“We have a great deal of trust in our county officials, but this just goes too far,” Taylor said in a press release issued by the Kansas Justice Institute. “COVID is serious, but we can’t let our most-basic rights be eroded.”
Sam MacRoberts, litigation director for Kansas Justice Institute, filed the case on behalf of Taylor and Hisel. The complaint asserts that the May 1 order authorizes warrantless searches and seizures.
“Constitutional rights do not get suspended during a pandemic,” MacRoberts said in the release. “There is a clear process by which governments can obtain business and personal records. Unfortunately, Linn County has ignored that process and put the basic rights of its citizens in serious jeopardy.”
The Linn County Commission, a defendant in the case, did not issue a statement about the suit when the governing body met Monday, May 11.
Linn County has six cases of COVID-19, according to the Linn County Health Department’s Facebook page. Five were lab confirmed, and one was listed as presumptive. The department reported May 2 that all six cases have recovered.
MacRoberts said government officials cannot be permitted to conduct warrantless searches.
“If we don’t stand up for our rights, we’ll lose them,” he said.
Hisel said the order is an invasion of privacy.
“The people coming to my restaurant are practically family, and I shouldn’t be expected to keep tabs on them for the government,” she said.
Kansas Justice Institute, the litigation arm of the Kansas Policy Institute, has been involved in several COVID-related actions involving free speech. The justice institute won a suit in 2019 to protect the First Amendment rights of raw milk dairies in Kansas, according to the release.
“We filed this lawsuit on behalf of Jackie and Linda Jo to hold the government accountable,” MacRoberts said. “It’s just as important now, perhaps more so, to follow the rule of law and respect our constitutional rights. The government does not get a free pass, even during a pandemic.”