Christa Thompson was trying to clean out her late father-in-law's house when local police in Rathdrum, Idaho, charged her with a misdemeanor offense that carries a fine of up to $1,000 and the possibility of six months in jail.
The crime? Holding a yard sale.
"A garage sale/yard sale is not an essential business and should not be open for business," Rathdrum Police Chief Tomi McLean explained in a post on the department's official Facebook page. "This was a large non-essential yard sale that filled the entire front yard and spilled into the back yard as well."
Peter Thompson, Christa's husband, told the Coeur d'Alene Press that the family was sorting through his father's belongings—including piles of stuff recovered from a storage facility—when the police stopped by the previous weekend to issue a warning.
"They told us we couldn't have a yard sale, that it violated the governor's order. I asked them if we could sort some things out on the lawn, and if it was OK to sell a few things to some people," Thompson told the paper. "They said, 'Sure, as long as there's no signs or advertising or anything like that. So we didn't.'"
That was on April 10. McLean says her officers found a post on Craigslist announcing a yard sale. They returned to the scene of the sale on April 13 to issue a written warning about violating Gov. Brad Little's March 25 order telling all residents to stay home and closing nonessential businesses.
When officers returned again on April 17, McLean's Facebook post says, they found "a large quantity of items were still out in the front yard and sales transactions were occurring while police were present." That's when Thompson was charged with a crime. Under the terms of the governor's order, violations can be punished by $1,000 fines and up to six months in prison.
But the yard sale continued on Monday, according to the Bonner County Daily Bee. Christa Thompson told the newspaper she needed to finish selling her father-in-law's property in order to pay bills and buy groceries for her six kids. With another truckload of stuff from a storage unit just getting delivered the to home on Monday, she speculated that the sale could continue throughout the week, and said she is advising prospective buyers to keep their distance from one another.
The ongoing standoff between the Thompsons and the local police department is a perfect illustration of the limitations of stay-at-home orders meant to combat the spread of COVID-19. Encouraging people to limit their interactions and stay home whenever possible makes sense—is necessary, even—to slow the spread. But it is impossible to stop everything. Bills must be paid, the difficult task of cleaning out a deceased family member's home cannot be postponed indefinitely, and life (to some extent) must go on.
It's also true that you can't have a yard sale without willing buyers. Everyone involved was choosing to violate the governor's order. This should be a signal to policy makers that the status quo cannot be maintained. As I wrote several weeks ago, total shutdowns cannot be expected to last for weeks or months. An equilibrium will be found—either purposefully and orderly by official policy, or haphazardly when people simply can't take it anymore. We are now seeing that, in state capitals around the country and in Christa Thompson's father-in-law's front yard.
As for Thompson's potential legal jeopardy, a Boise-based attorney has already volunteered to defend her. Edward Dindinger told the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a free market think tank, that he doesn't believe the charges against Thompson will stand in court.
"The fact that officers of this department took the time to seek out and arbitrarily cite this individual," Dindinger said, "indicates to me the Rathdrum Police Department has far too much time on its hands and is perhaps itself 'non-essential.'"