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Ebola Patient's Dallas Family Quarantined, Raising Legal Issues

As Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan is being treated at a Dallas hospital, his family has been quarantined. But compliance with public health orders hasn't been complete.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Duncan's relatives attempted to leave their Dallas apartment in opposition to official requests to stay home. The family's quarantine is now being enforced by police officers posted outside their apartment.

Where do Texas authorities get the power to impose a quarantine, and what legal consequences could the family face?

Public Health Falls Under 'Police Powers'

States and counties are given wide berth to regulate and protect public health under their general "police powers." Although the spread of Ebola is fairly new, local governments since the times of America's founders have had to deal with outbreaks of deadly diseases and how to legally contain them. Sometimes this mandated draining swamps or cesspools (thought to be the genesis of diseases), but it also included the power to quarantine infected individuals.

Texas' history of the power to quarantine may have its genesis in Galveston's local regulations in an attempt to contain smallpox and yellow fever outbreaks. The Texas State Historical Association notes that the Lone Star State enacted laws over 150 years ago that "enabled county courts and municipal corporate authorities to quarantine when necessary."

These regulatory structures eventually coalesced into the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is authorized under Texas' Health Code to "order the individual ... to implement control measures that are reasonable and necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, and spread of the disease." The Chronicle reports that Duncan's relatives are still under a "strict public health order" requiring them to stay at home.

Possible Criminal Charges?

Though these quarantine measures are not derived from criminal authorities, Duncan's family may face criminal charges if they try to break quarantine. The Texas Department of State Health Services stated on Thursday that if a person does not follow a "control measure," including quarantine, then that person can potentially face criminal charges.

Section 81.083 of the Texas Health Code states that "a criminal penalty" may apply to any individual who "refuses to perform or allow the performance" of quarantine measures that have been court ordered. For Duncan's family, the order issued Wednesday night prohibits them from leaving the house or having unapproved visitors -- at least until October 19.

As of Thursday, there were no reports of criminal penalties related to Duncan's family.

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