A tense debate over the powers of the county sheriffs offices has led to action in Dover’s Legislative Hall this week.
A group of legislators unveiled a bill Wednesday that will make it clear that sheriffs and their deputies are prohibited from making arrests or conducting traffic stops.
The issue arose last year after Sussex County Sheriff Jeffrey Christopher ordered his deputies to conduct traffic stops when witnessing violations, such as speeding and driving under the influence.
Over the last year, Christopher went back and forth with members of the Sussex County Council about the proper authorities of the state’s three sheriffs, who are typically responsible for processing court papers and conducing foreclosure sales.
The altercations led Kent County Sheriff Norman Woods to seek clarification from the Attorney General’s Office on the issue.
Last month, State Solicitor Lawrence Lewis wrote in a letter to Wood, and copied to Christopher and New Castle County Sheriff Trinidad Navarro, that after consideration of the state’s Constitution, it was concluded that sheriffs and their deputies did lack the authority to make arrests.
“Having reached this conclusion, however, we must recognize that we are essentially interpreting the intent of the General Assembly as over the course of 30 to 40 years,” Lewis wrote. “We think the wisest course for all concerned is to seek clarification from the General Assembly as to whether it wishes to grant the county sheriffs the power to arrest.”
In response, Rep. Dan Short (R-Seaford) and Sen. Gary Simpson (R-Milford) announced their plans to introduce House Bill 290, which will clarify the law.
House Bill 290 is expected to be filed today and assigned to the House Administration Committee.
“A number of my colleagues and I think it is the right thing to do,” Short said. “The Attorney General’s Office has asked the legislature to bring clarity to this issue and I believe this bill will set the record straight, once and for all.”
Sussex County President Michael Vincent said the council supports the legislation.
“This issue has always been about following the law,” he said. “Unfortunately, it has become a distinction over the past year, and it has forced people, perhaps on both sides of the debate, to lose focus on their respective duties.”
Christopher said he plans to oppose the legislation, however, during the committee hearing, tentatively scheduled for next Wednesday.
“If you don’t want a sheriff in Delaware, then you need to change the Constitution,” Christopher said. “These are legislators. We trust them. We elect them. Evidently they don’t understand how the system works.”