Sussex sheriff appeals court ruling

County denies meeting space for training sessions
April 23, 2013
Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher BY RON MACARTHUR

As promised, Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher has filed an appeal in Delaware Supreme Court, seeking to reverse a Superior Court ruling that declared he is not a law enforcement officer and has no arrest powers.

Christopher contends that under the state constitution, he is an elected conservator of the peace, the county's chief law enforcement officer who has police powers. Christopher said he anticipated the Superior Court ruling.

In the March 19 ruling, Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves said sheriffs in Delaware do not have the power to make arrests and cannot act as police officers.

Graves reviewed the history of the role of the sheriff found in the state's four constitutions, writing, "The central question is: Does the office of the sheriff inherently possess law enforcement authority because he is a conservator of the peace? The answer is no."

County and state governments agree the county Sheriff's Office job is to deliver court papers, process and handle foreclosure sales and enforce court orders.

House Bill 325, signed into law in June 2012, clarified Delaware law specifying sheriffs and deputies do not have arrest powers. Christopher simultaneously filed a lawsuit against county officials, seeking a declaratory judgment affirming his authority to make arrests.

In the lawsuit, Christopher asked 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 crowd control at events.

Christopher repeated what he has said many times. “I don't want a county police force, but I want the department to be able to fill in, help out and make arrests if necessary. It would be a different, more proactive role for the Sheriff's Office,” he said.

“To say the conservator of the peace is not a peace officer is illogical when thousands of rulings say just the opposite,” he said.

The Sussex Sheriff said he was elected on a promise to reshape the office beyond the role of serving court papers and conducting sheriff's sales. “That's what the people want,” he said. His actions have attracted attention, and he has traveled nationwide speaking about his effort to assert his law-enforcement powers.

The Institute on the Constitution, based on Pasadena, Md., recently held a Sheriff's Summit in Georgetown where Christopher was introduced as an American hero fighting to protect rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

Christopher, a Republican, was elected to a four-year term in 2000; he has stated that he would leave the state if his appeal is denied.

County denies building for sheriff's training sessions

Constitutional training sessions for deputies, posses and citizen supporters of Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher will not be held in a county building. Sussex County officials denied the use of the county's West Complex conference room, so the training has been moved to Yoder's Farm near Houston.

During a recent Sheriff's Summit in Georgetown, sponsored by the Institute on the Constitution, it was announced the training sessions would take place in the county's West Complex – the location of the Sussex Sheriff's Office – on Mondays April 22 through July 15.

The county denied use of the building on April 17.

In a letter to the institute, Sussex Administrator Todd Lawson wrote: “This type of training is directly at odds with the Sussex County Council's position on the duties of the sheriff.”

In addition, he wrote, the training goes against the county's policy pertaining to posses as outlined in an Oct. 31, 2011, memo from former County Administrator David Baker to Sheriff Jeff Christopher. In that memo, the recruitment of people by the sheriff as posse members was prohibited.

In his letter to Derek Howell, the institute's director of operations, Lawson outlined several other reasons why the county's West Complex building was not available for a series of training sessions.

Lawson said the facility is undergoing renovation and the conference room would be closed during certain times over the next few months; the West Complex is not open after 4:30 p.m. with all access points locked through the building's security system; and there are no security personnel assigned to the building during off hours.

“For our part, we would be at a loss to understand why representatives of a county government, who are sworn to uphold the United States Constitution, would be opposed, in any way, to the people of the county studying this historic American document of freedom,” Howell said.

The Oct. 31 memorandum specifically prohibits the use of special deputies or a sheriff's posse. Because of insurance liability concerns and county policies regarding volunteers, the memo told Christopher not to recruit volunteers.

Although the training sessions are not sponsored by the Sussex Sheriff's Office and may not be specifically aimed at recruiting a volunteer posse, Christopher has been seeking supporters for his philosophy on the duties of the sheriff. In a recent handout entitled “S.O.S. – Support Our Sheriff,” he offers suggestions to people on ways to get involved with the Sussex Sheriff's Office as a posse member.

He is also soliciting donations for his appeal through his Facebook page.

Christopher said the reason for a posse has not changed much from the days of the Old West. “The purpose for the posse then, as it still is today, was that the sheriff had the constitutional duty and right to gather people in his jurisdiction and go after the bad guys and bring them back to justice,” he writes.

He urges people to stay aware of their role as a patriot to offer what they can to support the sheriff through education, time, money and spreading the word about “what is at stake.”

He asks: “Slave or free, it's your choice. What legacy will you leave?”

Richard McKinley of Selbyville, who plans to attend the 12 weeks of two-hour classes, said the sessions are designed to help people learn more about the U.S. Constitution. “It bothers me that elected officials take an oath of office and covenant with God to defend it and then never read it,” he said.

He said there will be lectures and homework involved with the sessions placing emphasis on the constitution, not necessarily the Sussex County Sheriff's Office.

Howell said those interested in the classes can phone 866-730-9796.

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