Delaware legislation seeks to clarify sheriffs’ powers

What are the powers of a sheriff in Delaware – and, what are the limitations?  Lawmakers are considering legislation to clarify the roles of each of the state’s three county sheriffs.

Sheriffs and their deputies typically process court papers and conduct foreclosure sales.  However in late 2011, Sussex County Sheriff Jeffrey Christopher sought authority to make traffic stops and detain individuals.  Former Sussex County Administrator David Baker ruled that Christopher did not have such authority. 

The Delaware Attorney General’s Office last month issued an opinion in response to an inquiry from Kent County Sheriff Norman Wood, stating “we conclude that the sheriff and his deputies do not have authority to arrest.”  State Solicitor Lawrence Lewis also called for the General Assembly to pass a bill to codify what is believed to be the intent of the Delaware Code to expressly prohibit the sheriff from carrying out police powers. 

“Having reached this conclusion, we must recognize that we are essentially interpreting the intent of the General Assembly as over the course of 30 or 40 years,” Lewis wrote.  “We think the wisest course for all concerned is to seek clarification from the General Assembly as to whether it wishes to grant county sheriffs the power to arrest.” 

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Now, two state lawmakers are introducing legislation to specifically prohibit the three county sheriffs from having arrest powers.  Representative Dan Short (R-Seaford) and Senator Gary Simpson (R-Milford) are sponsoring the legislation. 

“I believe this bill will set the record straight once and for all that the three county sheriffs in Delaware are unauthorized to exercise arrest powers,” Short said.   

Members of Sussex County Council voted unanimously this week to support the legislation.  County Council President Michael Vincent said the issue had become a distraction over the past year.  “This issue has never been about politics or personalities. It has always been about following the law,” Vincent said.  “I’m hopeful this legislation will settle the debate so each of us can get back to doing the jobs we were elected to do on behalf of the people of Sussex County.”

According to the Attorney General’s opinion, sheriffs are considered “conservators of the peace” under the state Constitution.  However, the Constitution did not define the term.

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