A PAST, PRESENT,
AND FUTURE FOR THE OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF
(Based on the National Sheriffs' Association
booklet: The Role Of The Sheriff Past - Present - Future)
The exact date of the very first
sheriff undertaking his sworn duties to protect the lives and
property of those under his jurisdiction can not be determined
due to ambiguous historical findings from all over the World.
All of these findings point towards some type of prototype
sheriff. Many historians believe that the ancient Roman
pro-consul was perhaps the first sheriff-like authority. Other
historians believe that a prototype sheriff appeared first in
Saxon Germany. Still more have discovered that there was an Arab
chief or prince who was the descendant of Mahammed, through his
daughter Fatima, and was known as the sharif - translated to
mean illustrious or noble.
In 600 B.C., the Chaldean King
of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, was noted in the Book of Daniel as
being in the company of the sheriff during the setting up of the
golden image. This demonstrates that the early recordings of the
Holy Bible provide a 2600 year old reference of an existing
sheriff. It is true, however, that clear references and
recording of sheriffs are a uniquely English achievement.
Historian W. Morris wrote in his
book about sheriffs that "The office of the sheriff is one of
the most familiar and most useful to be found in the history of
English institutions,...,with the single exception of kingship,
no secular dignity now known to English-speaking people is
older." Writer Walter H. Anderson, in his book, stated that "The
office of the sheriff is one of antiquity" and "is the oldest
law enforcement office known within the common-law system and it
has always been accorded great dignity and high trust."
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his
The value of Constitutions, that "there is no honorable law
enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that
of the county sheriff whose role as a peace officer goes back at
least to the time of Alfred the Great." All of these men have
shown the possibility that even though there may have been
sheriff like people in other cultures and times, today's sheriff
is essentially a direct descendant of the English sheriffs. It
is known that even the English sheriff was once referred to as a
shire reeve, and perhaps it is true that the shire reeve was a
descendant of these sheriff-like people of other lands.
The sheriff was created because
laws needed enforcing. An interesting way to track the roots of
the sheriff is to study the written laws of Kings in ancient
times. One of the first Kings to do so was Lipit-Istar, the King
of Isin in 2207 B.C. He developed legally binding guidelines to
curb the behavior of his Sumerian subjects. A little over a
hundred years later, Babylonian King Hammurabi, devised the well
known and still studied codification system affectionately
called the Codes of Hammurabi. In 1500 B.C., King Thutmose III
spoke of justice when appointing Justice Rekhmire. All of these
scenarios point to a building up of a legal system in the
Jews were eventually ordered to
follow and obey the first five books of the Old Testament known
as the Pentateuch, showing recorded law near the Roman era.
Assyrians and Chinese governments attempted codified laws and
the Code of Manu was used by India. As the Roman era was well
underway, a digest of Roman law was created in 450 A.D. This was
improved in 550 A.D. by Justinian. As all of these were forged,
there must have been some type of enforcement by authority
figures, whether the kings themselves or their armies. It may be
possible that the sheriff role was merely a title of one who
Then the Magna Carta was written
and signed by King John in 1215 A.D., nearly 800 years ago. The
sheriffs had already existed and were known under this sir
title. Sheriffs had been recognized as principle participants in
the drama of government, seated just under the crown's barons in
hierarchy. Their duties and responsibilities mostly carried over
as America was established.
The English creation of the
sheriff and the common law was forged through the earlier
influence of morals and values from the Angles, Saxons, and the
Normans. Their belief in home rule over government control
spawned the establishment of the tuns (towns) that eventually
became the tenths of land that banded together to fight in their
wars. As the tenths banded into hundredths and small counties
formed (reeves), they needed to be headed by a chief, called a
gerefa. The garefa eventually became the word reeve in the Saxon
language. The garefas and the chiefs of the smaller tenths,
known as tithingmen, possessed both tribal judicial and tribal
police authority. There was no government centralization until
in 827 A.D. This is when Egbert, King of Wessex won the loyalty
of all the people in the tribes, newly referred to as
Alfred the Great created a
system of freemen pledging the good behavior of their neighbor,
in sort of a prototype neighborhood watch. A reeve was created
to sound an alarm when criminals escaped from the early jail.
This alarm was the repeated shouting of the words hue and cry
and ironically was the ancestor of the citizen's arrest.
(The Hue and Cry, from Irene Gladwin's book: The
England continued to expand
and the larger, more modern, counties formed and were called
shires. The reeves put in charge of the large counties were
called shire reeves in order to distinguish them from the
smaller county reeves. England then became a very war torn
country, there was the Norman Invasion, the fall of Hastings and
the subsequent end to Saxon rule over England.
The Norman influence over
England only strengthened the power of the sheriff. He became
government oriented and lost his home rule ideology. As
government taxed the people the sheriff took on a new
responsibility to enforce taxation. Norman rule, however, was
greatly abusive and faced constant rebellion from the
Englishmen. In 1199 Richard the Lionhearted died and his
despotic brother, John, inherited the throne and pushed the
crown to its limit. His own barons and sheriffs rebelled against
him and he was forced to sign the prior mentioned Magna Carta.
This document became the proverbial "cornerstone" from which the
British and American governments were to proliferate their
power. There were at the very least, nine (9) mentions of the
office of sheriff in the Magna Carta.
Discovery and conquering of new
land became central to the English Crown. America was discovered
and potentially named after the High Sheriff of Bristol, Richard
Amerycke, by error in the reading of a voyage map (this is a
recent theory that contrasts the theory of the country being
named after Amerigo Vespucci). As colonies were established, the
sheriff's office was copied into the local culture and law. The
first such transition of the English Sheriff to American soil
was in Virginia in 1634. Sheriff's were still appointed by the
King and was an extension of royal authority and representative
of the King. There is a record of a sheriff being elected by
popular vote as early as 1651, but this was highly irregular for
the rules of the era.
Unlike the latter English
sheriffs who put great expense out of their pockets to perform
the duty as sheriff, the American sheriff was very profitable.
This was attributed to the lack of pomp and ceremony that
existed in England and the need their to entertain. All men
sought this highly prestigious position in the colonies.
Maryland, coincidentally, became a close second in establishing
the office of the sheriff in the United States.
As Colonial times continued the
Sheriff faced some unique and never before experienced problems.
Travel was very difficult in America as there was no
infrastructure and no address system. This meant that the
sheriff had to take advantage of the culture and knowing
colonists attended church, would wait at the churches of those
he needed to serve papers at. This was a very secular and
ecclesiastical issue that caused the churches to lobby for
banning sheriffs from their premises in official capacities.
Despite any hard feelings, sheriffs were provided their own
seats at church and they counter lobbied for laws requiring
ministers to read the sheriffs proclamations on two successive
Sundays, thus still allowing them to get their man. Ironically,
the sheriff became charged with the responsibility of dealing
with religious non-conformists.
As the western frontier was
explored, the sheriff's office also moved into establishment out
west. Settlers became the targets and prey of Indians, thieves
and bandits. Everyone needed to protect their gold and oil. The
sheriffs of the west became very busy in a hostile environment,
becoming sub-divided into two (2) categories, the quick and the
Today the functions of the
sheriff are influenced by the social and political climates of a
modern society. People still like to elect their top law
enforcement officials in their counties and many people still
covet the office. Even non-law enforcement experienced citizens
run for the office. The sheriff of today is still the great man
of his county.
As the office of the sheriff
moves into the future, there is a distinct difference from the
earlier sheriffs. This is for the concern of training. The
sheriff has always had to adopt to change and is perhaps the
most resistant law enforcement authority to stubborn bureaucracy
and being unaccustomed to change. Training is the best way to
continue this trend as modern society finds new ways to commit
crimes and use technology to aid them in their unlawful actions.
THE SHERIFF - POLITICALLY SPEAKING
offers the people under his county jurisdiction, the most
effective liaison to law enforcement. When citizens have a
complaint concerning some problem in their county, the Sheriff
is ultimately their best remedy. Although modern times have
placed more glamorous attention on local and state police, they
create a myriad of problems in reality.
The Sheriff can respond faster
to any citizen's complaint then any police department. This is
one of the many forgotten powers of the Sheriff in the minds of
the citizenry. His fast and efficient abilities for handling
such concerns are derived from his constitutional foundation.
As an elected law enforcement
representative, he has great political power on the direction,
time spent, and discretion of any request from a constituent.
This is in stark contrast to the bureaucratic red tape of the
modern, contracted police authority.
LEGAL POWER OF THE SHERIFF
Today, especially in the
northeast portion of the United States, there is some
controversy over the legal power and authority of the modern day
sheriffs. A March-April 2000 issue of Sheriff magazine
addressed this issue head-on and appears to be the most recent
clarification of the sheriff authority. Even though the title
has been altered at times within the last 1200 years, the legal
authority has remained almost fully resistant to change.
Looking at a six (6) year old
Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, the court held that the
"constitutionally designated sheriff in the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania is a law enforcement officer who is vested with
full powers and duties to stop motor vehicles, issue citations
for motor vehicle violations under statutory code, and make
arrests with or without warrants" (Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania vs. Leet, 585 A.2d 1033). Sheriffs and their
deputies are basically police officers. Judge Carillo, who
presided over this case, even went as far as writing how
"instinctively,..., we are reminded of Sherwood Forest, where
the Sheriff of Nottingham was the chief law enforcement officer
who possessed far-reaching powers" and "King Henry of England
states to the Sheriff of Nottingham,...But look well to it,
Master Sheriff, for I will have my laws obeyed by all men within
my kingdom, and if thou art not able to enforce them, thou art
no sheriff for me."
For many years it has been known
that modern sheriffs are vested with the powers and duties
possessed by their predecessors under common law. In 1941, a
landmark graduate student dissertation was written by an A.
Anderson and stated "While the legislature may impose additional
duties upon the sheriff, where he is recognized as a
constitutional officer, it cannot restrict or reduce his powers
as allowed by the Constitution, or where they were recognized
when the constitution was adopted." Anderson continued on to
say, "The legislature may vary the duties of a constitutional
office, but it may not change the duties so as to destroy the
power to perform the duties of the office."
Anderson found that it was
legally acceptable for state legislatures to impose upon
sheriffs new duties growing out of public policy or convenience.
However, the state legislatures still can not strip the sheriffs
of their "time honored and common law functions". The
legislatures cannot "devolve them upon the incumbents of other
offices created by legislative authority." From this, today's
sheriffs have both expressed constitutional and statutory grants
of authority. They also have implied authority based on their
predecessors actions and can utilize it when it will aid their
The modern sheriff's provinces
and scope of authority can be determined by studying the modern
day legislation. The sheriff has the right and duty to enforce
any of this legislation as it concerns securing the peace,
order, safety, and comfort of the community under his
jurisdiction. In enforcing such legislation, the sheriff
satisfies his constitutional obligations in enforcing the
democracy's laws, protecting the lives and property of it's
people, and safeguarding the health and morals of the community.
As the sheriffs were appointed
in the New World, they acquired the power of arrest for all
offenses attempted or committed in their presence, without a
warrant. Any felony committed not in their presence could also
be reasonable grounds for an arrest under the ancient common
law, matching the exact measure for an arrest by any police
officer today with one modern day addition - articulable facts
leading a reasonable police officer to believe there exists
probable cause that the crime did, is, or will occur.
In conclusion, modern sheriff
duties are performed by order of the people instead of by order
of the King or Queen, so it is easy to see how the legal
authority is politically oriented. Sheriffs can maneuver through
court battles involving a challenge to their authority and come
out successfully when they address the legal protections of
their office concerning their constitutional obligations, and no
legal system or authority in the United States can challenge it
with any standing. As so, the sheriff and his deputies have
retained their authority to arrest without a warrant for all
crimes, however defined, committed in their presence, and for
felonies not committed in their presence. These powers could not
be truncated when the American legal system changed from common
law to statutory law due to the verbiage of the Constitution, so
the Sheriff exists as both an ancient and a modern authority.
2000, 2000 Office of the Sheriff Camden County, NJ
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in
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