The Sussex County Council heard the displeasure of many residents this week after having sent to the State last week a statement of their support for the proposed House Bill 290, an act to amend the Delaware code relating to sheriffs and sheriff deputies.
HB 290 would make the law clear that the county sheriffs and their deputies do not have arrest authority. According to the State, historically, the sheriffs and deputies have not exercised arrest authority, and the Attorney General’s office has given an opinion that the sheriff’s “power to arrest is no greater than that shared by any citizen.”
The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Daniel Short (R-Seaford) and state Sen. F. Gary Simpson (R-Milford) and has 23 co-sponsors, including state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th). The issue of the authority of sheriffs and their deputies has been raised repeatedly in recent years, with Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher only the latest in the office to seek additional law-enforcement training, and possibly authority, for himself and his deputies.
“This isn’t about Jeff Christopher. This is about an office that is accountable to the people,” said Sussex County resident Sandy Menard. “Everyone I talked to says this is about punishing a sheriff. This takes away the accountability of the people. We would like to you to rescind your support and, if you can’t, to please explain why.”
Todd Mumford, a probation and parole officer, said the council is acting in fear that the six-member sheriff office will start a county police force.
“I read the latest AG opinion, and I arrest people almost weekly, and thought, ‘Wait, I no longer have that power?’”
He asked that, instead of making broad changes to the code everywhere the sheriff is mentioned, to simply “add a one-liner to get them training — to give the law-enforcement officers the authority and tools to do the job.”
Before the public spoke, Council Member Vance Phillips – who was previously reported to have battled with Christopher over their differences on the issue – said he understood it was a “sensitive constitutional issue” and that he had looked into getting the Delaware Supreme Court to give a ruling.
“And I am paraphrasing, but the issue is not ripe yet. The action being taken could ripen it. Then, in my opinion, Sussex County could move forward on the sheriff issue. He is a conservator of the peace, and there is a lack of clarity about what that means. At least, I and the majority of council realize it is very sensitive, but because of the lack of clarity, I have supported the bill introduced in the General Assembly.”
Dan Cramer, a self-appointed council watchdog who often speaks at their meetings, said the council members have “fallen for the whole kit and caboodle. You are not honest. You go to church on Sundays, Hell on Monday and screw the public on Tuesday.”
Many other residents spoke in opposition to the County’s support of the legislation. One woman, Margarate Rais, however, said the council needs to “remember that this is Sussex County, Del., not New Jersey or Montana.”
“I am appalled that we have somebody to put Sussex County taxpayers on the hook for this kind of liability and spent so much time on someone who has overstepped their boundaries.”
“You must have voted for Obama, then,” another attendee shouted at her, before being asked to by Council President Michael Vincent to not disrupt with comments like that.
Councilman George Cole said that “a number of people have strong opinions on the sheriff’s department and, obviously, we have had some disagreements with the sheriff, but our position hasn’t changed. We still have concerns about different aspects of what the sheriff’s been wanting to do. It was a room full of people, but I don’t think that represents the county as a whole.”
He also said that he believes the County’s position is for the “county sheriff to do what he has traditionally done” and that they were simply supporting legislation that clarifies that.
Cole said, in response to what sounded like requests to “kill the bill,” that it was out of the council’s hands, as it is “up in Dover, not in Georgetown.”
According to the County, the sheriff’s office is charged with the serving of documents on behalf of the State courts, and conducting sales of property for non-payment of taxes, as well as foreclosures.