A bill to clarify the powers of the sheriff passed the House of Representatives, May 10. Thirty-six representatives voted to approve House Bill 325; two legislators – Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, and Rep. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View – voted against the bill.
Rep. Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville, refused to vote on HB 325 because, he said, he is unsure whether the bill is a violation of the Delaware Constitution.
Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, who voted to approved the bill, asked a number of questions before the vote was taken, including whether the proposal would amend the state Constitution.
According to the Delaware Constitution, sheriffs serve as conservators of the peace. Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, the bill's primary sponsor, said the Constitution does not specify the powers and responsibilities of the sheriff. "It does not touch the Constitution at all," he said of the bill.
HB 325 was released from the House Administration committee May 9.
Schwartzkopf, the committee's chairman, said about seven people testified against the bill a May 9 hearing, including Republican Sussex County Council candidate Don Ayotte and Georgetown Republican Eric Bodenweiser.
At the end of the hearing, four of the five committee members voted to release HB 325 to the House floor for a discussion and vote.
Committee member Hocker did not vote. Hocker announced last month he would run for the 20th District Senate seat, which encompasses a larger area than his representative district and includes Millsboro, Oak Orchard and Long Neck.
Schwartzkopf said HB 325 is the first bill on the agenda May 10, and it would likely hit the House floor at 4 p.m. “I think it will pass,” Schwartzkopf said.
A similar bill, introduced in March by Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford, was stricken April 25. Short introduced a resolution May 1 that would have formally requested an opinion on the sheriff’s powers from the Delaware Supreme Court. The resolution was tabled in committee the same day.
Schwartzkopf said House Speaker Robert Gilligan, D-Sherwood Park, was against the resolution because it sets a bad precedent. “He doesn’t want to get into that habit,” Schwartzkopf said. “I agree with Gilligan,” he said. “That’s not the way it’s set up to be.”
As Short’s resolution was being debated in the House Administration committee, Schwartzkopf said, he was handed a copy of a lawsuit filed by the sheriff in Sussex County Superior Court.
Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said the lawsuit makes the resolution moot. “The Supreme Court will not interfere with something that’s already in the lower court,” he said.
“I think the timing of the lawsuit will help pass the bill as well,” Schwartzkopf said. He said he plans to continue moving the bill through the General Assembly and get it passed before the last day of session, Saturday, June 30.
If the court rules in favor of the legislature, Schwartzkopf said, the law will already be in place.
Sheriff files suit against Sussex County
Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher has taken county officials to court, seeking declaratory judgement affirming his authority to make arrests and other powers.
The Sussex County Superior Court suit comes at the same time legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly to strip arrest powers from the duties of the three county sheriffs in Delaware.
The suit alleges county officials have sought to nullify Christopher's constitutional authority by any means possible including denying budget requests for training, staff salaries and equipment. Christopher is asking the court to rule that he is the chief law enforcement officer in Sussex County and therefore able to carry out law-enforcement duties including traffic stops and arrests, transporting prisoners and providing security or crowd control at events. He also seeks complete access to the Delaware Criminal Justice information System.
The suit also asks for professional training for office staff and emergency lights and signage on Sheriff's Office vehicles. Christopher is requesting full authority as conservator of the peace to carry out his duties as prescribe in the Delaware Constitution without “direction, restriction or interference of any kind from any other government official or entity within the state of Delaware.”
“For approximately 210 years, sheriffs of Delaware have been constitutionally charged to conserve the peace within their respective jurisdictions. As elected county officials directly responsible to the citizens of their respective jurisdictions, sheriffs have provided a necessary check and balance of power among appointed and elected state and county officials,” according to the suit.
The suit alleges all attempts made by county officials to limit the Sheriff Office's powers make no reference to constitutional reasons “as there are none.”
Sheriff defends deputy's actions
The suit also outlines an incident that Christopher says is “one of many involving actions properly taken by Sheriff Christopher and his deputies to preserve and protect” the people of Sussex County. “It further demonstrates the critical nature of the peacekeeping role of Sheriff Christopher and his deputies, especially given the large geographic size of Sussex County, the nonexistence of a county police force and the limited resources of the Delaware State Police.”
The suit states that on April 12, Chief Deputy Dennis Lineweaver stopped two vehicles on Route 26 operating in an aggressive manner, potentially preventing a fatal domestic-related incident.
The suit alleges Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson issued a memorandum cautioning that his action would be perceived as law-enforcement activities and would not be covered under county insurance.
Christopher is raising funds through Iowa-based Legacy Foundation to fund his legal action. The organization describes itself as devoted to educating the public about concepts that advance individual liberty, free enterprise and limited and accountable government. The foundation also engages in independent, nonpartisan research on public policy matters and initiatives, according to its website.
County stands firm
Sussex County officials released the following response to the lawsuit: “Sheriff Christopher has chosen to pursue litigation in trying to resolve the matter of the office's authority under Delaware law. Sussex County stands firm in its belief, based on numerous state attorneys general opinions and decades of tradition, that sheriffs and their deputies in Delaware are not law enforcement officers, nor does the county believe they are empowered with arrest authority.”
County spokesman Chip Guy said the lawsuit is not litigation in the conventional sense, in which one party is suing another for monetary damages. In the request for declaratory judgment, the sheriff has asked the court to determine what his authority is. “The county intends to assert its position and protect the interests of Sussex County's citizens,” he said.
Christopher is represented by attorney Christos Adamopoulos of the firm Connolly, Bove, Lodge & Hutz of Wilmington.