Trying to Pay the Mortgage: Essential Business or Violation in Texas?

May 18, 2020 | By Fulgham Hampton Criminal Defense Attorneys
Trying to Pay the Mortgage: Essential Business or Violation in Texas?
Trying to Pay the Mortgage: Essential Business or Violation in Texas?

Even the most stable households across middle America are feeling the pinch from the COVID-19 lockdowns now. Both employees and business owners alike are beginning to struggle after months of not being able to work and still having to pay bills.

So what happens when Texans try to make ends meet? Some business owners don’t see any other way than to violate the orders of local government.

In fact, a number of business owners have been arrested on grounds of an emergency management plan violation. One specific example includes two women alleged to have been operating salon services from their homes.

On the other hand, there appears to be a double standard as some public officials have also been violating these state-wide orders -- without recourse. Let’s examine exactly what Texas law says about emergency management plan violations and the apparent double standard in existence.

What Does the Current Texas Emergency Management Plan Say?

In early April, Texas Governor Gregg Abbot issued an executive order instructing Texans to restrict social interactions to all but “the most essential activities.” This was not immediately labeled a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.

The governor later clarified that the order was intended for Texans to remain at home except for essentials such as going to the grocery store or doctor’s offices. Even though further clarification was given, this rather vague order left a lot of room for interpretation.

The Meaning of “Essential”

Many Texans have been unsure about what activities are considered essential. Even more confusing has been the apparent inconsistency with which businesses have been allowed to operate.

Many large retailers such as Walmart and Home Depot have been allowed to remain open as an essential service but smaller grocery stores and food establishments have been forced to close.

What has further caused confusion is the fact that, for many Texans, their jobs are incredibly essential. Employers count on their staff to keep the business up and running. Employees are unable to pay for food and other necessities when they are unable to work.

So, ask most folks who are still working, and we venture they would say the business they’re doing is extremely essential.

The Noticeable Double Standard

What Does the Current Texas Emergency Management Plan Say?

Meanwhile, there are many reports of city and state representatives carrying on activities as usual under the guise of being an “essential employee.”

To Texas business owners forced to close due to the stay-at-home executive order, this comes across as a major double standard. Especially as business owners who were working to pay their personal mortgages and feed their families are being arrested for their activities.

The most recent example? The mayor of Beaumont, Texas allegedly sighted at a nail salon appointment.

While she was made to apologize publicly for the violation, believe it or not, the salon in question is currently under legal investigation, according to Business Insider, and may wind up being fined a thousand dollars.

What Does Texas Law Say About EMPs?

Texas is quite clear about emergency management plans and the laws in place surrounding them. These most recently have been in effect for natural disasters such as hurricanes but now apply to the COVID-19 stay at home order.

The law states that the purpose of an emergency plan is to:

  • reduce the vulnerability of people and communities of this state to damage, injury, and loss of life and property resulting from natural or man-made catastrophes, riots, or hostile military or paramilitary action
  • prepare for prompt and efficient rescue, care, and treatment of persons victimized or threatened by disaster
  • provide a setting conducive to the rapid and orderly restoration and rehabilitation of persons and property affected by disasters

The law further breaks down into greater detail, however, these are the most applicable parts for the current COVID-19 pandemic. The law is quite specific on the reasons plans go into effect and what they cover.

So, what are the penalties for an emergency management plan violation?

Penalties for Violating an Emergency Management Plan

According to Texas state law, a person found guilty of an emergency management plan violation may face the following penalty:

“The plan may prescribe a punishment for the offense but may not prescribe a fine that exceeds $1,000 or confinement in jail for a term that exceeds 180 days.”

Penalties for Violating an Emergency Management Plan

Aside from the possibility of jail time and a fine, a person guilty of this may further lose income as they are unable to work. A conviction also means a criminal record. For Texans already wondering whether their jobs are considered essential enough for them to work and care for their families, this can be a steep (and unfair) price to pay.

About the Author:

Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth. He has been recognized for his work by Expertise (Best Criminal Defense Lawyers in Forth Worth and Best DUI Lawyers in Fort Worth, both 2020), The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.

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