Sussex County Delaware

Sussex Beat, Oct. 17, 2000

Sheriff Should
Remove Lights

NOTE: Sussex Beat is a mix of news, analysis and commentary by Eric Magill, publisher of Sussex County Online.


Eric Magill, Sussex County Online

SC Online

Sheriff ...

There Are Better Ways
to Push for More Power

The current battle between Sussex County Sheriff Robert Reed, Sussex County Council and the state of Delaware's Department of Public Safety is about a lot more than flashing red and blue lights.

More than anything, Sheriff Reed wants police powers for his department and is using implied powers in the state's constitution, along with taxpayer resources, to try to strong-arm the county and the state into giving him and his deputies the power of state and municipal police officers.

Sussex County Sheriff's CarBrian J. Bushweller, secretary of the state's Department of Public Safety, sent a letter to the county on Oct. 16, 2000, saying that if the emergency lights were not removed from the five sheriff's vehicles, that he will suspend their vehicle registrations on Friday, Oct. 20, and arrest anyone caught driving those vehicles after the suspensions.

For his part, the sheriff told the News-Journal on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000, that he would "shut the courts down" if state officials revoked the registrations of his department's vehicles.

He further challenged the county and state to a trial to "let the judge decide" whether the lights should remain and effectively determine if sheriffs and deputies are entitled to police powers.

Sheriff Reed said that only a court order would make him remove the lights of the cars owned by the county. Sussex County Administrator Robert L. Stickels said the county would not move to "forcibly" remove the lights on its own because it doesn't want to get into that kind of confrontation with Reed.

Of course, neither of the options Sheriff Reed has proposed should be acceptable to Sussex County taxpayers, who also face the possibility of an adverse effect on the county's motor vehicle insurance if the unregistered vehicles are operated.

But, as I said before, this is not just about flashing lights. This is all about the powers of the sheriff's department. Reed wants more power, citing tradition and the powers he believes the state's constitution and code give his department. County officials don't want the sheriff to have more power, citing the cost and legal ramifications of operating what would be, in effect, a county police force.

Sheriff Reed, the state and the county have all cited passages in the Delaware Constitution and Code to back their positions.

I've weeded through both the constitution and code book and have not found a single reference in either document that specifically defines the sheriff's duties, nor have I found a single reference in either source that defines what a sheriff's duties are not.

State Solicitor Michael J. Rich has attempted to define a sheriff's duties based on a couple of references in the Delaware Code. In an Oct. 16 letter to Secretary Bushweller, Rich said it is the opinion of the attorney general's office that sheriffs and deputies are not police officers.

Rich's most compelling argument comes from a passage in the code that defines a police officer as "any police officer holding current certification by the Council on Police Training as provided by Chapter 84 (of the code book) AND who is:

  1. A member of the Delaware State Police
  2. A member of the New Castle County Police
  3. A member of the police department, bureau or force of any incorporated city or town
  4. A member of the Delaware River and Bay Authority Police
  5. A member of the Capital Police
  6. A member of the University of Delaware Police; or
  7. A law enforcement officer of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control."

On the other hand, Sheriff Reed can cite a passage from the state constitution defining the duties of state police officers as follows:

"The state police shall have powers similar to those of sheriffs, constables and other police officers and shall be conservators of the peace throughout the state, and they shall suppress all acts of violence, and enforce all laws relating to the safety of persons and property. The state police shall be the primary law-enforcement agency within the state. That state police shall have exclusive jurisdiction, excluding the incorporated limits of any municipality maintaining an established police department, for police investigations of the following:

  1. Homicide
  2. Suicide
  3. All other deaths requring medical examiner's investigation
  4. Kidnapping
  5. Rape and unlawful sexual intercourse
  6. All attempts thereof"

Obviously, you can construe those passages to fit your opinion, and there are other seemingly contradictory passages supporting both sides in this debate. Still, there is nothing that anyone can point to that definitively declares what the sheriff's duties are and aren't. The duties of constables, on the other hand, are specifically defined as to what they can and can not do.

As for "shutting the courts down", the sheriff is required by law to "summon all inquests or jurors, which sheriffs ought to summon, and witnesses necessary for executing justice", or face a $50 fine per infraction and possible "liability in damages to any party injured by such neglect or default," so his threats seem pretty empty.

The state and county sorely need to specifically define what a sheriff's department's duties are and aren't, and Rep. Benjamin Ewing, chairman of the legislature's Public Safety Commitee, said that issue could come up in the next session.

Until then, Sheriff Reed should remove the lights from his vehicles, stop using the taxpayers' vehicles and money as a sledge hammer, and find another way to press his point.

Your Opinion ...

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Sites Not to be Missed ...

If you're looking for medical information on the Internet, a good place for basic information about medical topics is, a site led by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop. In addition to reference material on more than 60 conditions, the site also provides breaking medical news and a dozen medical forums broken down by topic. You can search the site by symptom or by illness or disease.

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