County seeks dismissal of sheriff’s suit

Defense: Municipalities, state, others must be named in suit
June 26, 2012
Sheriff Jeff Christopher SOURCE FILE PHOTO

Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher says the state constitution gives him the power to make arrests, but other Sussex County officials and the Delaware General Assembly say otherwise.

As the debate works its way through Superior Court, Sussex County argued Christopher must include all stakeholders as defendants in the case, including the state and the federal government.

Christopher filed a May 21 complaint in Delaware Superior Court, seeking a declaratory judgment to affirm his authority to make arrests.

In the suit, Christopher also seeks complete access to the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System, professional training for staffers at the Sheriff’s Office and emergency lights and identification on Sheriff's Office vehicles.

Christopher says the Delaware Constitution authorizes him to act as conservator of the peace and allows him to act without interference from government entities. The suit says the county government has attempted to invalidate Christopher's authority by denying budget requests for training, staff salaries and equipment.

Christopher seeks to be named the chief law enforcement officer for Sussex County.  He names only Sussex County and its officials as defendants in the case.

Christopher’s complaint was filed just as a measure to clarify sheriffs' duties, specifying Delaware Sheriffs have no arrest authority, made its way through the General Assembly.  House Bill 325, sponsored by House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, was signed by Gov. Jack Markell June 19.

On June 13, defendants in Christopher’s suit – Sussex County, county council and the county administrator – filed a response to the sheriff’s complaint.  The county’s response says Christopher cannot make his case without naming all governments affected as defendants, including municipalities with their own police forces.

Defense attorney David Rutt argued the necessary and indispensable parties – the State of Delaware, all municipalities in Sussex County and the federal government – must be included as defendants in the suit because all will be affected by the outcome of the case.

“An initial review of the facts clearly reveals additional parties are required under Rule 19 for a complete adjudication of the claims of the sheriff,” Rutt wrote.

Under Rule 19, Rutt argued, the state, all Delaware towns and cities and the federal government have a stake in the case.  Rutt said as chief law enforcement officer for Sussex County, Christopher would have authority over all municipal police and some state police stationed in the county.  Those entities should have the opportunity to respond to the sheriff's claims, Rutt said.

The burden now falls on the sheriff to prove these additional parties are unnecessary for the court to proceed, the motion states.  “Sussex County submits sheriff will be unable to do so,” Rutt wrote.  He asks the court to dismiss Christopher’s complaint.

Rutt said a response from Christopher is due Friday, July 20.

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