WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr directed the nation’s federal prosecutors Monday to watch for restrictions imposed by state and local governments during the coronavirus pandemic that may go too far, violating constitutional rights.
“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr wrote. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”
He told the assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division, Eric Dreiband, and all of the country’s U.S. attorneys to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.” He tasked the U.S. attorney in Detroit, Matthew Schneider, to help lead the effort.
Barr said he recognized that state restrictions have been necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus, “but there is no denying that they have imposed tremendous burdens on the daily lives of all Americans.”
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President Donald Trump, speaking later Monday at a news conference, backed Barr’s efforts.
“He wants to see people get back to work,” Trump said. “He does not want people to be held up when there is no reason for doing it.”
The president added: “The attorney general doesn’t want rights taken away. There are some people, they are not allowed to open up their store. They’re going to lose their livelihood. And, by the way, that causes death also. … The fact that people aren’t allowed to have their freedom causes tremendous amounts of problems, including death, so that’s what he’s talking about.”
Since March, Barr has called on prosecutors to take action against fraudulent claims of COVID-19 cures or treatments, hoarding of personal protective equipment and excessive restrictions on church attendance. He has since faced a growing push from some on the right to get the Justice Department more involved in resisting pandemic restrictions.
In mid-April, Ed Meese, attorney general during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, led a group of 95 conservatives in signing an open letter urging Barr “to undertake immediate review of all the orders that have been issued by the states and local governments across the nation.”
Last week, in an interview with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Barr called stay-at-home orders “disturbingly close to house arrest.”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t justified,” he said, but “it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood.”
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In the past two months, the Justice Department has charged several businesses and individuals with consumer fraud, hoarding, price gouging and falsely claiming to have large amounts of protective equipment to sell to the government.
But the only action it has taken to push back on a local pandemic restriction came in Greenville, Mississippi, after police issued tickets to people who stayed in their cars in a parking lot, with their windows rolled up, to listen to their pastor deliver a sermon on the radio. The city has since relaxed its rule.
CORRECTION (April 27, 2020, 9:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He is Eric Dreiband, not Drieband.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.