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Friday, April 27, 2012

Report Details Concerns Over Sussex Deputies and Police Work

GEORGETOWN, Del. - Various agencies are expressing concern over Sussex County sheriff's deputies performing police work, according to a recently released county report.

In one case, drug charges were dropped against a defendant over concerns the man was not afforded his constitutional rights, the report said.

The documents are part of an on-going debate between Sussex Sheriff Jeff Christopher and the county administration over the role and authority of his office.
Delaware sheriffs traditionally conduct foreclosure sales and deliver court papers. Christopher believes the state constitution makes him a law enforcement officer. The county administration disagrees.

The county made the 64-page report public this week after Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, pulled a measure at legislative hall that would explicitly prohibit Delaware sheriffs from making arrests. County officials submitted the April 5 report to lawmakers in support of HB 290.

The documents include a March 29 letter from Delaware State Police advising the county that troopers were instructed to decline the assistance of deputies who "self-dispatch" to emergencies. The county said the announcement came after a deputy caused "confusion and alarm" by joining troopers at a burglary in progress in the Dagsboro area in January.

The report also includes a letter from the chief magistrate of Sussex County expressing legal concerns over deputies detaining people. Chief Magistrate Alan Davis ordered justices of the peace to accept people brought into court by a deputy for an outstanding warrant as though they walked in on their own, according to an April 4 letter.

"Obviously, the chief magistrate doesn't understand the rich history of the sheriff and what the sheriff has been in the past and what constitutional value is given to the sheriff," said Christopher in a telephone interview.

The sheriff disputed the county's version of a February incident where a deputy detained a man found to be in possession of drugs at the scene of an accident. In its report, the county said the defendant was eventually turned over to state police but the charges were dropped because of constitutional issues related to the deputy's involvement. Christopher said the charges were brought forth by troopers and said his deputy did not interfere with the process.

Christopher said he plans to stand his ground in the debate. The sheriff said he is doing the job he was elected to do.

"I don't consider myself radical at all," Christopher said. "I consider myself in line with the constitution and I simply want to obey the law."

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said the county remains concerned about liability. Last fall, the county ordered deputies to stop performing police work.

"We're concerned about the liability question and until there's a clear indication of what the sheriff's authority is, we're going to continue to pursue this," Lawson said. "It's in the best interest of the county and taxpayers to try and protect them from liability that this poses."
The county council supported HB 290, a measure some hoped would end the debate. Short, the sponsor, struck the bill on Wednesday after it was placed on a committee agenda without his consent, breaking house tradition. He previously tabled the bill to explore guidance from the Delaware Supreme Court on the matter.
Short said he will now pursue a house resolution asking the state's highest court to weigh in on the debate

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