Senate Votes to Restrict Powers of Delaware Sheriffs
DOVER, Del. (AP)- The state Senate on Thursday narrowly passed legislation asserting that county sheriffs in Delaware do not have police powers.
The bill was approved 12-3, receiving one more vote than needed for passage. It now goes to the governor, having passed the House overwhelmingly last month.
The bill is a response to recent actions by Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher, who argues that as "conservators of the peace" under Delaware's constitution of 1897, he and his deputies are law enforcement officers with the authority to arrest people and make traffic stops.
The attorney general's office has issued several nonbinding opinions concluding that sheriffs, whose normal duties include serving court papers and conducting property sales, do not have police powers.
Sussex County officials also have told Christopher he cannot engage in law enforcement activities.
Christopher has defied local officials, however, filing a lawsuit against the county and allowing his deputies to make traffic stops and to take people with outstanding warrants into custody.
County officials, who filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss Christopher's lawsuit, have said deputies also have been "self-dispatching" to incidents reported on state police radio frequencies. The state police have ordered troopers to decline the assistance of sheriff's deputies, and the chief magistrate of the Justice of the Peace Court has told his judges in Sussex County to treat anybody brought in by the sheriff or his deputies on an outstanding warrant as if they had turned themselves in.
Christopher said Thursday's passage of the bill did not come as a surprise.
"Now I'm forced to choose between my oath that I took to the constitution to be a conservator of the peace, and obeying state law," he said.
Christopher said his deputies would continue to carry out their duties and would respond to incidents reported on police radio only if asked to provide backup. He also suggested that complaints from his critics have been exaggerated, noting that his deputies have been involved in only one traffic stop.
County spokesman Chip Guy said local officials look forward to Gov. Jack Markell signing the legislation.
"We are hopeful with its passage that it will bring clarity and ultimately a resolution to the lingering issues here in Sussex County."
But some lawmakers believe it will take a ruling by the state Supreme Court to decide the issue once and for all.
Sen. Robert Venables, D-Laurel, voted against the bill, saying a better approach would have been to pass a resolution by Republican Rep. Daniel Short of Seaford asking the state Supreme Court for an opinion. Citing Christopher's lawsuit, Venables said the Supreme Court likely will end up deciding the issue anyway.
"I don't think that we ought to be forcing this type of legislation when we know there's a lawsuit going on," Venables said. "We need the Supreme Court to say what this really means."
Minority Leader Gary Simpson was one of several GOP senators who declined to vote on the bill.
Simpson, R-Milford, said that while he doesn't think sheriffs have arrest powers, he was concerned about the constitutionality of the bill.
"It deletes the powers of a constitutional office," he said.
Sen. George Bunting, a Bethany Beach Democrat, agreed, saying lawmakers should address the issue by amending the state constitution, not passing a stand-alone bill.
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