Why Is the Legal Status of the Sheriff Unique

Running a prison can be a lucrative business, and sheriffs are known to get rich in the process. In Bucks County, Mark Lomax is running for office promising to address another major challenge: the lack of racial diversity among members of the Sheriff`s Department. About 98% of Bucks County`s population is white. His growing influence is evident in recent sheriff campaigns. “After searching in vain for a legal basis for sheriff supremacy and speaking with several others who have studied law enforcement and civilian oversight, I can confirm that a constitutional sheriff with unique autonomy is not really a thing,” she wrote. In dozens of races across the country, answering that question became a central theme of the campaign as the constitutional sheriff movement capitalized on anger over pandemic-related restrictions. While it`s unclear how many law enforcement officials espouse the ideology, one group that promotes it claims up to one-tenth of the nation`s sheriffs as dues-paying members, and many sheriff candidates now on the ballot repeat their rhetoric. In Iberia Parish, Louisiana, longtime Sheriff Louis Ackal had been prosecuted so many times for excessive violence by his deputies that a group of state sheriffs no longer insured him against prosecution. The group paid about $3 million to settle claims, including one related to the death of a handcuffed man in a police car and another related to an incident in which lawmakers threw a pregnant woman to the ground and pepper-sprayed her. [John Simerman / The Advocate] Lomax embraces the unique powers of elected sheriffs who report directly to the voters, unlike police chiefs, who are typically hired and fired by city councillors at will. “They have virtually no authority over you in relation to the government; They respond to the voters,” Lomax said, adding that despite this freedom, he envisions “being a law-enforcing sheriff.” Because the duties of sheriffs are enshrined in state constitutions — meaning the role cannot be eliminated — there are few restrictions on their power. In many cases, only a particular officer can arrest a sheriff, even if he or she has broken the law.

In some places, only the governor can arrest the sheriff. In some states, the local government may make a limited amount to change a sheriff`s budget or determine the allocation of funds. [James Toberlin/Virginia Law Review] Because sheriffs have the power to arrest people, they often play a role in enforcing immigration regulations. ICE`s 287(g) program is based on agreements between state and local law enforcement agencies and the agency that allow sheriffs and other officials to verify the immigration status of detainees and help initiate deportation proceedings. [ECI Factsheet] Mark Lamb, the 49-year-old sheriff of Pinal County, Arizona — who years ago signed Mack`s association pledge to be a constitutional sheriff — this year formed a nonprofit coalition of sheriffs called Protect America Now, which vows to “fight those who want to trample on our Constitution.” With the emergence of important issues such as gun laws, sheriffs were the only warriors standing between the local population and the unconstitutional laws and programs enforced by politicians at the local and state levels. As elected officials, sheriffs have a unique role in U.S. law enforcement, as seen in some places, the Sheriff`s Department`s role as the primary law enforcement official leads to unequal treatment and instances of excessive violence, especially against people of color. In April 2018, Sheriff Butch Conway of Gwinnett County, Georgia, used $70,000 from asset forfeiture funds to buy a 707-horsepower muscle car. The Justice Department wrote a letter asking the sheriff to reimburse the federal government for the forfeiture funds he used. (The government had previously approved the purchase, taking the sheriff`s argument at face value that the car was intended for covert operations and educating children about the dangers of distracted driving.) The Department of Justice requested the money in July 2018 and is currently conducting a federal review of other expenditures. [Tim Cushing/TechDirt and Tyler Estep/Atlanta Journal-Constitution] The idea “was invented by merging random references to sheriffs and militias into our political and legal texts,” Tsai wrote. “It is based on a very selective reading of history that claims that the high sheriff of the English county was transplanted to colonial America and then remained intact in the present by the legal developments of the last 200 years.” In 41 California counties, elected sheriffs also serve as coroners.

Coroners are responsible for formally determining the cause of death, for example, whether it was a murder or an accident. In many counties, there will also be forensic pathologists who will perform autopsies, but they do not always control the final assessment of the cause of death. However, it is generally not necessary for sheriffs who are coroners to have prior medical knowledge. More broadly, many state and local law enforcement agencies have failed to enforce federal laws regarding the sale and possession of marijuana. To date, about 36 states have legalized some form of marijuana possession, meaning many sheriffs in those states don`t enforce federal laws out of consideration for competing state laws. However, since the federal government has not filed lawsuits against states that have legalized marijuana, sheriffs in those states face no legal disputes. In many states, sheriffs have the ability to raise unlimited campaign funds that can be transferred to other political candidates in the state, extending their influence beyond their county boundaries. Unlike many police chiefs, sheriffs are often local celebrities who seek attention and hold regular press conferences to announce their decisions to defy government orders, for example. In our explanatory series, Justice Collaborative helps lawyers and other legal professionals solve some of the most complex problems in the criminal justice system. We break down the issues behind the headlines – like bail, forfeiture of civilian property, or the Brady Doctrine – so everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to use the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work and how they often fail.

We will update our explanations quarterly to keep them up to date. There are also ways for the legislature to help clarify the rules that affect sheriffs. In Alabama, for example, Gov. Kay Ivey responded to reports that Alabama sheriffs were pocketing money to feed prisoners by repealing policies that gave that money to sheriffs “personally” and instead required that the amounts be placed in a specific fund.