DOVER, Del. - The debate over the authority and role of sheriffs in Delaware returned to the state capital Wednesday.
Roughly a dozen supporters of Sussex Sheriff Jeff Christopher boarded a bus in Millsboro headed for Legislative Hall. The group opposes HB 290, a bill that would explicitly prohibit sheriffs from making arrests.
"This bill needs to be striken, not tabled," said Don Ayotte of Georgetown. "If it's tabled, it can be pulled to the floor at any time."
Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, tabled the bill during a House Administration Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon. Christopher's supporters still made the trip to Dover.
"We voted for the sheriff. He won overwhelmingly," said Carol Beth Lambert of Millsboro. "This is going against the people when you tell us our sheriff can't take care of us."
Christopher is locked in an on-going dispute with the county administration over the authority and role of his office. In Delaware, sheriffs traditionally conduct foreclosure sales and deliver court papers. The sheriff believes the state constitution makes him a law enforcement officer. The county administration disagrees. Last fall, the county ordered deputies to stop performing traditional police work over liability concerns.
The sheriff argues the bill is the latest attempt to eliminate his office.
On Tuesday, about 20 people protested against HB 290 outside the county administration building in Georgetown. Despite pleas from the sheriff's supporters, the county council stood by its unanimous support of the bill.
Sussex County leaders point to three opinions from the state Attorney General's Office saying sheriffs and deputies are not police officers in Delaware.
"There is a real indication there's a lot of misinformation out there and some of it, I think, is intentional information put out by folks who don't agree with this bill," Short said.
As lead sponsor, Short said he tabled the bill so house attorneys could explore ways to receive a state supreme court opinion on the matter. Sponsors hope the justices would shed light on whether the sheriff's listing as a conservator of the peace in the state constitution makes him a law enforcement officer and whether the position comes with arrest powers, Short said.
What is unclear is how to request an opinion from the state's highest court considering the bill has not yet passed, Short said.
When tabled, a bill can be called up in a committee meeting with approval of the chair.
Short does not believe the measure was pushed through the house too quickly and said he did not table the bill because of pressure from opponents.
"I think we need to put the record straight. I'm willing to do that. That's why I'm willing to table the bill," Short said. "But if someone wants to challenge me and say Danny doesn't have the gumption to do that, I'll be glad to run it out and see where the votes fall out."