Supreme Court: Sheriff has no arrest powers

Justices uphold Superior Court, rule against Christopher
October 7, 2013
Delaware Supreme Court ruled sheriffs in Delaware, including Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher, do not have the power to make arrests. SOURCE FILE PHOTO

The Delaware Constitution does not give sheriffs in Delaware the power to make arrests, the state Supreme Court ruled.

On Oct. 7, the Supreme Court issued a ruling, written by Justice Randy Holland, affirming a previous ruling by the Superior Court that Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher does not need to make arrests to act as a conservator of the peace.

Christopher filed a lawsuit against county officials on May 9, 2012, asking Superior Court to rule that he is able to carry out law-enforcement duties, including traffic stops and arrests, transporting prisoners and providing crowd control at events.

On March 19, Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves decided against Christopher, ruling sheriffs in Delaware shall not be involved in law enforcement.

Christopher appealed the decision to Delaware Supreme Court, and all five Supreme Court Justices heard the case in Dover, Sept. 11.

In the current Delaware Constitution, codified in 1897, the sheriff is considered a conservator of the peace, along with judges and the attorney general.

Julianne Murray, Christopher’s attorney, argued the sheriff must have arrest powers in order to conserve the peace.

Murray also said because the powers of the sheriff are enumerated in the Constitution, a Constitutional amendment would have to pass the General Assembly to take away any of the sheriff’s powers.

Murray said House Bill 325 – a June 2012 bill that said sheriffs and deputies do not have arrest powers – was unconstitutional.

In the ruling, Holland said the General Assembly may not take away the core duties of any constitutional officer.  “However, we also hold that the sheriff’s common law arrest power is not a fundamental or a core duty of his constitutional role as a ‘conservator of the peace,’” Holland wrote.

On the constitutionality of HB 325, Holland said, “Because the common law arrest power of a sheriff was not fundamental, but was merely incidental, to his role as a ‘conservator of the peace’ when the 1776, 1792, 1831 and 1897 Delaware Constitutions were adopted, the arrest power can be modified or even eliminated by statute.”

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