A Winnebago, Minn., police officer was on patrol last month when he was struck by the sight of four cars parked outside Shooters Bar.
When he tried to investigate whether the bar was defying Gov. Tim Walz's March 16 executive order requiring bars and restaurants to cease dine-in service, he found the door locked and four men inside playing cards and drinking.
Bar owner David M. Schuster of Winnebago was charged March 26 in Faribault County District Court with a rare offense — violating an emergency powers order or rule.
Schuster, 57, became the first Minnesotan charged with violating one of Walz's several executive orders aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, which has infected 935 Minnesotans and killed 29.
Eight others have since been charged as of Friday afternoon with the same offense — a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
Some advocates are concerned police are not issuing a warning first, or are unnecessarily tacking on the charge as a secondary offense.
Walz and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety have urged education over enforcement regarding the orders, allowing police to operate with wide discretion.
"It's discouraging to see … so many criminal charges," said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota. "Criminal charges should be the last resort."
An Elk River woman was charged Monday in Mille Lacs County with drunken driving. She was also charged with violating Walz's March 25 order requiring all citizens to shelter in place and avoid leaving their homes unless necessary.
The charges did not specify how the woman violated the order aside from being on the road at the time she was stopped last Sunday. Walz's order allows "driving for pleasure" among other outdoor activities.
"One wonders: What is the point of pursuing this misdemeanor charge along with the other things?" Nelson said. "Why not just focus on the main bad behaviors?"
Other cases also gave Nelson pause, while police defended them.
A Cottage Grove officer was on patrol Tuesday when he saw a local woman driving. She had a history of driving while her license was canceled, said court documents.
The officer stopped her.
"She told me that she just left Taco Bell and before that she was organizing her belongings at Acorn Mini Storage in Cottage Grove," said the citation.
The officer cited the woman for driving after cancellation and for violating Walz's stay-at-home order.
"There's a long history of her out in public violating the driving law, and I think that [citation] was used as a tool to stop her from driving out in public," said Cottage Grove Capt. Randy McAlister, who was not the officer at the scene. "We're not stopping people at all for COVID-19 violations or shelter-in-place violations."
McAlister said his department is using education over enforcement. The department received about 23 calls over the past week about COVID-19 or apparent violations and has issued no other citations, he said.
While Walz's order does not address leaving one's home to visit storage units, it allows people to leave if their safety is at risk, for outdoor recreation and to obtain food or household supplies, among other reasons.
Nelson disagreed with police citing the Cottage Grove woman, who could not be reached for comment.
"The thing that struck me was it was just really mean-spirited," Nelson said, "and they were going after her just because they can."
Misdemeanor convictions can result in serious consequences to someone's housing and work options, she said, and should not be taken as lightly as a traffic or parking ticket.
In Traverse County, a Browns Valley man was cited Tuesday for trespassing and violating an emergency order.
In Hennepin County, a Minneapolis man was cited Thursday for violating an emergency order after Eden Prairie police responded to a call about a stolen vehicle.
The citations did not specify how either man allegedly violated an emergency order.
Eden Prairie police Lt. Matt Sackett said the suspect in their case was cited for violating the stay-at-home order.
"If somebody's out committing other criminal activity, that would not be allowed by the stay-at-home order," Sackett said. "We're going to use all of our available resources to hold people accountable."
Maplewood police cited a local man Friday for keeping his tobacco shop open when it's a nonessential business required to shut down.
Dakota County had two cases: A West St. Paul man was charged Friday with violating an emergency order, criminal damage to property and marijuana possession after he allegedly shot paintballs from a vehicle at houses in Inver Grove Heights last week. Police cited his female passenger with violating an emergency order.
The charges against Schuster allege that when the officer asked him on March 22 what was going on, he said, "It doesn't matter."
The officer advised Schuster and his three guests of Walz's order and asked them to leave.
"Schuster continued to protest, noting that this was communism," the charges said.
Schuster did not return messages seeking comment.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 • @ChaoStrib