Lawmakers limit sheriff's power

Bill heads to governor's desk on 12-3 vote
Lawmakers have passed legislation removing arrest powers from the state's sheriffs and deputies. BY RON MACARTHUR
June 14, 2012

With just two weeks left in the session, the Delaware Senate passed controversial House Bill 325 June 14.

By a 12-3 vote, the bill goes to the governor's office. HB 325 clarifies existing law by removing arrest powers from the duties of sheriffs and deputies in all three counties.

The legislation received no support from Sussex County senators. George Bunting, D-Bethany Beach, and Robert Venables, D-Laurel, voted against the bill while senators Gary Simpson, R-Milford, and Joe Booth, R-Georgetown, did not vote.

The bill passed the House of Representatives May 10 by a 36-2 vote.

Venables said the issue should be settled through the court system and in particular the Delaware Supreme Court. “There is no need to force this legislation, especially not when a lawsuit is going on,” he said before the vote.

Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher has taken Sussex County officials to court, seeking declaratory judgement affirming his authority to make arrests and other powers. Christopher is requesting full authority as conservator of the peace to carry out his duties as prescribed in the Delaware Constitution without “direction, restriction or interference of any kind from any other government official or entity within the state of Delaware.”

Venables said he sided with the intent of the bill that the state's sheriffs and deputies should not have arrest powers.

Simpson agreed with Venables. “It makes sense to get a ruling in the Supreme Court. I question the constitutionality of the bill itself,” he said.

Bunting said the matter should be settled with a constitutional amendment. In the interim, he said, the Sussex County Sheriff's Office should cease and desist from any law enforcement action until the court case is settled because the sheriff and deputies could be held personally libel for their actions.

Sen. Anthony DeLuca, D-Varlano, said several agencies, including Sussex County Council, were asking for changes and supported the legislation. He said it's not up to the General Assembly to question the constitutionality of legislation. “That's what the courts are for,” he said. “This bill does not amend the constitution.”

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.