Supreme Court rules county sheriff has no arrest powers
Earlier this week the Delaware Supreme Court ruled to uphold the Superior Court’s ruling that Delaware sheriffs do not have full constitutional authority to exercise all powers necessary to conserve the peace, including the power of arrest.
“The judgment of the Superior Court is affirmed,” stated the Superior Court decision filed on Oct. 7.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today hopefully settles the issue once and for all — sheriffs and their deputies are not law enforcement officers in the state of Delaware,” said Sussex County Council President Michael H. Vincent. “All along, the County Council, the Attorney General, the Delaware General Assembly, and the courts have said that. Now that the Supreme Court has settled the matter, we are hopeful Sheriff Christopher will accept the rule of law and return his focus to the office he was elected to serve in.”
“We are negotiating right now whether to go forward to the Federal level,” said Christopher following the Court’s decision. “We kind of thought that this might be the outcome.”
In August of 2012 Christopher had filed a complaint to seek a declaratory judgment regarding the powers of the sheriff in Delaware to the Delaware Superior Court.
The complaint was filed after the Delaware General Assembly enacted House Bill 325 with the purpose of “‘clarifying . . . that the county sheriffs and their deputies do not have arrest authority.”
Christopher argued that the bill was unconstitutional, and that the phrase “sheriff shall be the conservator of the peace” is a constitutional right, and that arrest power is a “core tool.”
“The Sheriff submits that by stripping him of arrest powers, the General Assembly violated the Delaware Constitution,” stated 26-page decision filed on Oct. 7. “In this opinion, we hold that the General Assembly may not abrogate a constitutional office or take away the core duties of a constitutional officer without enacting an amendment pursuant to the Delaware Constitution. However, we also hold that the sheriff’s common law arrest power is not a fundamental or a core duty of his constitutional role as a ‘conservator of the peace.’”
“Being a conservator of the peace is very clear in my mind what it is. I don’t need a dictionary to tell me what it is. It’s commonly known, like common law,” said Christopher following the decision. “I simply refuse to believe that the government or the courts refuses to allow this to happen because it’s robbing the people.”
In a statement released following the Court’s decision, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office stated the Court’s decision affirms the constitutionality of HB 325,
“The Court’s ruling is consistent with longstanding state law and multiple Opinions issued by the Delaware Department of Justice, and reflects the position that this office has taken throughout this case.”
The decision stated that the common law arrest power of a sheriff was not fundamental, but rather incidental in the role of “conservator of the peace” when the Delaware Constitutions were adopted in 1776, 1792, 1831, and 1897, and therefore the power to arrest could either be modified or eliminated by statute.
The decision went on to state that when the Delaware Constitution was adopted in 1776 the phrase “conservators of the peace” was, “undoubtedly derived from the use of that term in England to collectively describe a group of officials having a variety of different duties and responsibilities. That English history is summarized… Similarly, during the American colonial period, ‘conservators of the peace’ were understood to describe a range of officials from judges to sheriffs who, by virtue of their office, played some part in the maintenance of ‘the normal state of society.’”
“We hold that the term “conservator of the peace” in the 1776 Delaware Constitution and each successive Delaware Constitution has always been used only to describe a changing variety of public officials,” stated the decision.
“Sheriffs all across the nation are battling this same kind of situation. It’s no secret that the Constitution is being eroded all over the United States with regard to federal, state and local laws,” said Christopher. “I see this as nothing different. It’s time for the people to stand up to protect the laws that our founding fathers gave us to preserve our families and individual rights, freedoms and liberties.
“I’m just hoping at this point that the people will pay closer attention to what’s going on and how it’s being handled all over the country, and that our rights are being eroded. We need to do something about this because it has to do with our family, our future family, children, and grandchildren. If we don’t protect what we have that was given to us by our Founding Fathers, we’re going to lose it.”
Christopher added that he believes citizens need to look closer at the government and reread the Constitution.
“If you remember, the government is of the people, for the people, and by the people. If we let it be anything other than that, we deserve what we negate by not paying attention,” he said. “We have to go back to school and understand that we believe if you’re a traditionalist who understand the basic values of America. We have to maintain our government, and we’re not doing that as people.”
He noted that he believes the issue has not been addressed previously due to former sheriffs not taking action.
“Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of that eroded over the years, simply because sheriffs here in Delaware did not have law enforcement experience prior to becoming sheriffs. They were simply winning the election with no experience and no knowhow to execute what a sheriff is supposed to do to protect the citizens.”
Christopher said that he and his attorneys have been in preliminary discussions as to whether they plan to appeal the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision to the federal level.
“We’re going to talk to the constituents and make sure this is something that the people want to do. After all the entire fight I’ve had so far has been based on what people are telling me, what they want to do and what they would like to see in the state of Delaware. I believe that the people genuinely deserve a situation where they can trust law enforcement in Sussex County. I think they’re being denied what a sheriff is supposed to do,” he said. “If the consensus is for us to go forward, then it’s just another step as far as we’re concerned.”