The ACLU’s Views On Atlanta Man’s Quarantine Case

May 30, 2007 12:00 am

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Statement of Barry Steinhardt
Director, ACLU Technology and Liberty Project

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) invoked its authority under federal law last week to hold an unnamed Atlanta man in isolation in New York City and later an Atlanta hospital. The patient was reportedly contacted by CDC while traveling in Europe and informed that unrelated medical tests had indicated that he had a dangerous, drug-resistant form of tuberculosis.

The threat of communicable disease, including the threat of bio-terrorism or the emergence of a new microbe, is of serious concern to all of us. No one disputes that the government is responsible for responding to threats that could have serious and deadly consequences, and that powers of quarantine and isolation are a legitimate part of the government’s authority where it is justified by a the presence of a genuinely communicable and life-threatening disease.

However, the power to forcibly detain and confine a person is an extraordinary power and, like all government powers in a civilized democracy, can never go unchecked. Public health authorities make mistakes, and politicians abuse their powers. For example, there is a history of discriminatory use of the quarantine power against particular groups of people based on race and national origin.

Quarantine and isolation must be last resorts that are employed only after less restrictive alternatives have been employed and failed, or are impossible to use under the circumstances. In the vast majority of cases, sick individuals are the first to want proper medical attention and need no encouragement or state coercion to voluntarily isolate themselves.

In the current case of the Atlanta man, the ACLU has no information indicating that the government has done anything to violate the patient’s rights. However, it is important that the man have access to due process and a right to appeal his condition.

Due process rights are particularly important as modern medicine advances, and diagnoses of illnesses are increasingly made based on advanced technological tests, where the individual may have no symptoms, and the threat that disease will be spread may be unknown, ambiguous, or in dispute – or may even be the result of a laboratory error.

A right to redress is also important because of the looming threat of bio-terrorism or a naturally occurring epidemic such as avian flu, which might create a genuine public emergency and/or spark a widespread public panic. In the face of such possibilities, it is all the more important that the government set good precedents and ‘get it right’ with respect to individual cases such as this.

In recent years, the CDC proposed new regulations for the quarantine of travelers, and advanced model emergency health powers legislation at the state level. The ACLU raised serious concerns about these proposals. The current case appears to demonstrate that, whatever the shortcomings of our public health laws; a lack of authority to respond in cases where it believes a threat exists is not one of them.

The ACLU’s comments on the CDC’s proposed rules on the quarantine of travelers is online at:

A Q&A on the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act is online at:

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