Del. Lawmakers Look to Clarify Arrest Powers of County Sheriffs
Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher
DOVER, Del. - Delaware lawmakers are considering legislation to clarify the arrest authority of county sheriffs.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, and Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, would modify state law to explicitly prohibit sheriffs and deputies from making arrests. The proposal has bipartisan support.
"It tells the sheriffs of the state of Delaware what they can and cannot do," said Short. "Specifically, it says they cannot arrest people."
The bill is partially intended to resolve an ongoing dispute between Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher and the county administration.
Delaware sheriffs traditionally conduct foreclosure sales and deliver court papers. Christopher believes the state constitution makes him a law enforcement officer. The county council and county administration disagree. Last fall, then-County Administrator David Baker ordered deputies to stop performing police work and remove lights from sheriff's vehicles. Baker said the sheriff was putting the county at risk of lawsuits.
"This is an issue that needs to be resolved," Short said. "Take it to where the attorney general said we need to take it which is the floor of the Delaware General Assembly."
On Tuesday, the Sussex County Council voted unanimously to support the bill. Short said the proposal has support from all three counties and both sides of the aisle.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's another step to erasing the office of sheriff from the state of Delaware," said Christopher. "That's a danger to the people."
The sheriff said he is not surprised by the bill. He said the measure is part of a power struggle.
"If the people out here in Sussex County, and Delaware for that matter, feel that the office of the sheriff is important to them, then they need to speak up now," Christopher said.
The sheriff said his deputies have not performed police work since receiving Baker's orders last fall. Christopher, who believes his authority comes from the state constitution, said a constitutional amendment may be necessary if lawmakers want to clarify his authority. The sheriff planned to further discuss the bill with his supporters.
The bill would amend 11 titles of the Delaware code, according to a draft copy. Short said attorneys went through most existing statutes addressing law enforcement in hopes that one bill would settle the issue once and for all.
The Delaware Attorney General's Office supports the measure, Short said. An opinion released in February from State Solicitor Lawrence Lewis concluded that Delaware sheriffs do not have arrest powers; however, Lewis called on lawmakers to clarify the law.
The bill is expected to appear in a house committee by next week, Short said.
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