Sussex County officials have released a 64-page report compiled for the General Assembly outlining why county council seeks a law clarifying the role of the county sheriff. “Sussex County officials have no intention to further the role of the Sheriff's Office, yet the ambiguity in the Delaware code limits the county's ability to resolve this situation,” the report states. “As a result, legislation is required to clarify the sheriff's authority in the state.”
The proposed legislation to do just that, House Bill 290, suffered a setback April 25 when sponsor Rep. Dan Short, R-Seaford, decided to strike the bill.
County officials have defined the role of the Sheriff’s Office as twofold: delivering court papers and conducting monthly sheriff’s sales.
Council's report outlines a record of activities going beyond those duties, citing deputies who responded to active crime scenes, detained citizens and showed up in court with wanted criminals. Those activities have forced Delaware State Police and Justice of the Peace judges to distance themselves from the Sheriff's Office; the report contains correspondence from state police and local police officials and court officers.
Sussex Sheriff Jeff Christopher contends his authority as a conservator of the peace with arrest powers is mandated by the state constitution, not by state law or county policies. Short plans to introduce House Concurrent Resolution asking the Delaware Supreme Court to determine if the Sheriff's Office has arrest powers under the state constitution.
In a Feb. 23 opinion, State Solicitor Lawrence Lewis wrote: “After consideration of the Delaware Constitution, statutes and case decisions, we conclude that the sheriff and his deputies do not have authority to arrest.”
Council's report states Delaware State Police troopers have been ordered to refuse Sheriff's Office assistance in law enforcement matters. “Delaware State Police personnel are ordered to respectfully decline the assistance of sheriff personnel when they 'self-dispatch' to scenes and offer to aid in a law enforcement capacity outside their normal duties of serving court papers or executing sheriff sales,” wrote Maj. Charles Simpson, Delaware State Police operations officer.
Sussex officials say they have been made aware deputies self-dispatched to crime scenes. One incident occurred Jan. 13 in the Dagsboro area, when a deputy arrived at a residence being investigated by state troopers for a reported burglary. The report states the deputy's arrival caused confusion and alarm among state troopers.
Deputy admits making stops
During a September interview with county officials, Chief Deputy Dennis Lineweaver admitted he had stopped several people since February for reckless driving, tailgating and weaving, saying it was part of his job as a deputy sheriff. One of those persons, William Breasure, appeared before county council recently to tell his story. He said he was improperly detained by Lineweaver on Route 113 between Milford and Georgetown.
In another interview with county officials, Christopher confirmed Lineweaver's accounts and said he had instructed his deputies to make traffic stops, hold violators and call Delaware State Police. According to the report, the sheriff said his order had been policy for a long time.
Then on Oct. 21, 2011, three teens who were legally hunting near Redden Forest were stopped, questioned by a deputy for 10 minutes and released when their parents arrived.
On Oct. 31, then-County Administrator David Baker issued a memo to Christopher requiring his staff to stop conducting traffic stops and detaining people for questioning and to halt even the impression of making an arrest.
“Yet, Sheriff Christopher and his deputies continue to persist in their pursuit of being authorized police officers,” the report states. A call to Christopher for comment was not returned at presstime.
Chief Magistrate Alan Davis has issued an order to all justices of the peace to accept individuals brought to courts in Sheriff's Office custody as though the individuals turned themselves in, as a precaution to avoid civil rights or due process claims.
On Feb. 9, a deputy brought in an individual to Court 3 who was wanted on drug charges and an outstanding warrant. The judge ordered the individual’s release and requested Delaware State Police retain custody. Ultimately, the drug charges were thrown out of court because the deputy was not a police officer and the individual was not afforded his constitutional rights, according to the report.
In a letter to the county, Davis wrote the Sheriff's Office has no input capability for warrants or defendant processing. “As a result, I informed the judges of this court in Sussex County that, barring any subsequent confirmation that the sheriff has arrest powers, any person brought forthwith by the sheriff or his deputies on an outstanding warrant would be treated as through the defendant had walked into the courthouse to turn themselves in,” Davis wrote. “In addition, judges were not to review or approve any warrant that was presented by the Sheriff's Office.”