Mississippi indictment highlights pitfalls of power for sheriffs

The indictment of a sheriff in Mississippi highlights a long-simmering debate about how long the arm of the law really is. Some sheriffs think they have more authority than the president.

John Fitzhugh/Sun Herald/AP
Jackson County, Miss., Sheriff Mike Byrd, right, walks to the Ocean Springs, Miss., Police Department with his attorneys on Friday. Byrd turned himself in to be served with a 31-count indictment including charges of embezzlement, fraud, hindering prosecution, tampering with a witness, and perjury.

Many American lawmen believe, in part because of the way the Constitution is written, that there is no higher power than the office of the sheriff, with even the President of the United States being penultimate to the badge. Miss. Sheriff Mike Byrd, however, may have forgotten the flip side of that power – that the sheriff is expected to be a “minister of God for good," as the National Sheriffs' Association describes the obligation.

A state indictment against the four-term Jackson County, Miss., sheriff claims Mr. Byrd used the power of his office in unseemly and illegal ways, including refusing to pay for lawnmower repair, ordering a detective to file murder charges against a seemingly innocent man for political purposes, and sending deputies to stake out a Mexican restaurant that refused to take one of Byrd’s checks.

Mr. Byrd, a Republican, was released on bond, but he has not yet entered a plea as to his innocence or guilt. He joins dozens of sheriffs from New Mexico to Georgia who have faced indictments for malfeasance while in office over the last decade for everything from destroying incriminating court documents to murder.

Many of the slights included in Byrd’s indictment that came down Friday may be criminal, but also somewhat mundane. But they actually play into a long-simmering debate in the US about the how long the long arm of the law really is when it comes to sheriffs.

That debate has intensified recently as hundreds of US sheriffs have publicly said they’ll subvert, even physically resist, federal gun control laws, and that they’ll turn their deputies on federal agents if they come to take anybody’s guns.

Far from Washington, sheriffs control vast tracts of US territory in places like northern New York, southern New Mexico, and Utah.

There are 3,083 elected sheriffs in the US, unique holdovers of the British system that dates back to the 9th century – the Sheriff of Nottingham – that have always wielded vast powers over the vassals.

“In many areas … sheriffs are the most powerful political force that people have to deal with," Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta, once told the Monitor. "You have people who become local J. Edgar Hoover types, who have a little bit on everybody."

As the sole elected peace officers in America, sheriffs wield power on their own terms, managing small platoons of deputies, holding sway over county jails, and operating largely on independent budgets.

More critically today, sheriffs have resurrected the specter of the posse comitatus movement of the 1970s, which suggests that the federal government is legally impotent.

Remarking on "worrisome times," Sheriff Stacy Nicholson of Georgia's Gilmer County wrote on Facebook earlier this year that "I, along with a large number (which is growing daily) of Sheriffs across the state of Georgia as well as the entire United States, have no intention of following any orders of the federal government to perform any act which would be considered to be unlawful or a VIOLATION OF ANY PART OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OR THE CONSTITUTION OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA, nor will we permit it to be done if within our power to prevent it."

Today’s sheriffs at least suggest that Washington politicians are more their enemies than friends.

“We’re very frustrated with politicians who present to all of us that they’re smarter than the Founders, and I guarantee you there’s not one politician for whom that actually holds true,” says Richard Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County and founder of Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

The sheriff first emerged in 9th century England, making the office “the oldest continuing, non-military, law enforcement entity in history,” according to the National Sheriffs Association. They began as shire guardians called reeves, then became royal appointees as the term shire-reeves morphed into sheriff. Sheriffs historically kept the peace and served writs, which remain the cornerstones of the sheriff’s duties today in the US.

But while the English sheriff eventually became ceremonial, the office retained its power in America, in part because the idea of the sheriff became associated with pure democracy, with the sheriff having no other bosses than the voters, which made him personally responsible to folks in his county.

But from the rise of the sheriff especially in the American West, the office has had corruption problems, according to Sheriff Roger Scott of DeKalb County, Illinois. “A few [sheriffs] did not live up to the standards of the badge,” he writes, and some “were indicted for abuse of power, drunkenness and/or corruption.” In 1864, Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannock, Mont., was hung by his own constituents because he allegedly commanded a “gang of robbers” as he meted out justice, Mr. Scott points out.

Over his four terms, Sheriff Byrd has certainly made his mark on Jackson County. The Mississippi Supreme Court last week quickly moved to bring a state judge out of retirement to hear the case, after all the judges in Jackson County recused themselves.

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