Actor Andy Griffith’s TV character Andy Taylor became famous as the sheriff without a gun, who made arrests and enforced the peace through his courage and firm, but gentle, persuasion. But what would he have done if he hadn’t had the ability to make traffic stops or arrests at all?
That’s just about the situation that has developed in Delaware, where one sheriff is campaigning to restore the authority to his office he says was granted by the state’s constitution.
The battle now includes the state legislature, where lawmakers are trying to redefine sheriffs so they can serve papers and process administrative work but have no hand in actual law enforcement.
Law enforcement authority, say supporters of a state bill, belongs to state police and city police.
“We are very close to having a police state, because the state police does all of the policing except for the municipalities,” Sheriff Jeff Christopher of Sussex County told WND.
Unlike police chiefs, who are hired by government officials, sheriffs are elected by the people and historically have been recognized as a highest-ranking law enforcement officer in a county.
There have been several threats to the authority of sheriffs recently. In Montana, a proposal would have required all federal law enforcement officers to coordinate any activities in counties with the local sheriff. And in Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio continues to ruffle feathers in Washington with his investigation of whether Barack Obama is perpetrating a fraud on county voters by running for president without being an eligible candidate.
In Maryland, the office of sheriff is a constitutionally created position similar to the secretary of state or attorney general and demands, “The sheriffs shall be conservators of the peace within the counties . . . in which they reside.”
However, over the years the sheriffs in the three counties voluntarily turned over most of the arrest authority to state police.
That was the status quo Jeff Christopher found when he was elected sheriff of Sussex County in 2010. With the support of tea party members he set about to restore the office to its historic position of preeminence in the county.
He explained that prior to his election the departments passed off their duties to the state police, and that was causing concern.
“[People] were frustrated by the attitude of the state police. There was no alternative with law enforcement and when you get this high and mighty attitude by the state police coupled with delayed responses residents get frustrated but they have no other recourse because the sheriff has been neutered,” he explained.
He says apart from the fact his office was constitutionally created, there are other important reasons for the sheriff’s office to exist.
“If there is some type of balance where the people can call the sheriff instead of the state police when they do not get the proper response then the state police would straighten up their act up and start becoming a little more humble with their interaction with the people. This would reverse the trend towards a police state,” he said.
His efforts have created a backlash, with officials now in his own county supporting the state plan that would strip sheriffs of their authority to arrest.
It states: “‘Police officer’ as used in this code shall not include sheriffs and sheriff deputies.”
It also says, “It is the intent of the General Assembly to specifically state the sheriffs and their deputies do not have any arrest authority.”
The legislation gives state forest officers more authority than a sheriff and his deputies, saying they have the ability to arrest anyone who is “committing or about to commit an offense against any of the laws enacted for the protection of forest, brush, grass or wild lands in this state” but the sheriff does not.
The bill, which has been delayed in the legislature, claims one of the reasons for the change is that sheriffs have already voluntarily given up that right.
“Historically the sheriffs and deputies have not exercised arrest authority and the attorney general’s office has given an opinion that the sheriff’s ‘power to arrest is no greater than that shared by any citizen.’”
Chip Guy, a spokesman for Sussex County, says the county supports the legislation. While the bill is currently stalled in the legislature, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, issued a statement that sheriffs no longer have arrest powers.
In a Feb. 24 opinion, state solicitor L. W. Lewis said neither the state nor common law grants arrest powers to the county sheriffs.
Christopher said the move relieved him and his deputies “of all arrest powers.”
But Guy said those who say this amounts to a curtailing of the sheriffs’ authority are mischaracterizing the situation.
“You’re characterizing it as if they had that ability beforehand. That is not the responsibility of the sheriff’s department in Delaware,” Guy said. “It’s not accurate to say it was taken away when it was never there in the first place.”
But Christopher said that while the sheriffs have deferred to the state police in the recent past Guy is simply not correct when he says local sheriffs never had the authority to arrest.
“The sheriff had all authority he needed in the past. Mind you not the recent past because the issue with the sheriff has been about 15 to 20 years in the making. Guy’s statement that ‘he never had it’ is wrong,” Christopher said.
“He is just repeating what the AG’s recent opinion claims. Part of the problem is that the detractors want to spread the news in order to undermine the office of sheriff and Guy is an agent of those detractors.”
In fact, the office of sheriff in the state actually predates the founding of the United States by over a century, as Delaware’s first sheriff took office in 1669.
The sheriff says the county is doing everything it can to take away his authority, even going so far as to tell him his deputies are not covered by insurance if they are involved in any type of law enforcement duty.
But he said he’ll fight for his responsibilities.
“We are directly answerable to the people, where the other police departments are not. The purpose of the sheriff is to defend and protect the rights of the residents of their county,” he said.
“They tried to pass a state law abrogating my powers but I told them no state law can supersede a constitutional office and the law’s authority as well as Biden’s opinion is invalid,” he continued. “There is a good old boys network that wants to give all power to the state police.
“I told them I was not going to abide by this since it is unconstitutional.”