The Justice Department Wants to use COVID-19 to Significantly Expand Its Powers

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Mar 23, 2020

As the nation practices social distancing due to the rapid spread of a novel virus, COVID-19, the Justice Department (DOJ) wants to use the crisis to expand its powers by being able to detain people indefinitely without a trial during emergencies, reported Politico on March 21.

According to Politico, detailed documents from the DOJ to lawmakers argue for the government’s increase in legal power, from an arrest to how the arrest will be processed and investigated, as COVID-19 continues to expand. For example, part of the documents ask that Congress grant power to the attorney general to be able to ask any district court chief judge to stop court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” The DOJ wants it to apply to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,” according to Politico. 

The DOJ may not be able to move this past Congress, because an accused person facing a judge is a constitutional right in the United States. Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told Politico that what the DOJ is proposing was frightening. “Not only would it be a violation of [the Constitution], but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest,’” said Reimer. “So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed, tweeting, "Two words: Hell No."


In light of President Donald Trump declaring a national emergency on March 13 as a result of COVID-19, Politico reports that the DOJ also asked Congress to halt the statute of limitations for criminal and civil investigations during national emergencies, “and for one year following the end of the national emergency.” What’s more, the documents were said to request having hearings by video conference, with some hearings taking place without consent from defendants.

Pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle prompted DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec to issue a statement via Twitter on March 22 writing, “The proposed legislative text confers powers upon judges. It does not confer new powers upon the executive branch.” 


"It does not matter how urgent times are, we have to make sure that we retain our civil rights and there’s no reason for us to be waiving folks’ civil rights in an emergency," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told CNN on March 22.

Senator Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) response, via Twitter, was straight to the point: “OVER MY DEAD BODY.”