GEORGETOWN, Del. - A measure that would explicitly prohibit Delaware sheriffs from making arrests has passed the house.
Representatives passed the bill on Thursday by a vote of 36-2. The measure heads to the state Senate.
The bill is related to an on-going debate between Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher and the county administration.
Delaware sheriffs traditionally conduct foreclosure sales and deliver court papers. Christopher believes the state constitution makes him a law enforcement officer. The county disagrees, pointing to opinions from the Attorney General's office stating the sheriff is not law enforcement.
On Wednesday, Christopher filed a lawsuit against the county council and the county administrator asking the Superior Court to uphold his argument. Court records show Christopher is asking for declaratory judgment. In the filing, Christopher requested the court rule that the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county.
"I'd like to have declaratory judgment on what the role of the sheriff should be in so much as how the law describes it," Christopher said in a December interview.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Christopher said the lawsuit was filed with advice of his attorneys.
"I think this will settle the matter once and for all," said Eric Bodenweiser, a sheriff supporter who has followed the issue. "We need a court case that would settle the matter."
The county administration vowed to stand its ground, expressing hope a court case might end the dispute.
"We stand firm in our position that the sheriff is not law enforcement and we look forward to having this case addressed in the courts," said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson.
Lawson said the lawsuit was not unexpected.
"We knew this would end up in court someday. We're just waiting for clarity and a resolution. If this gets us there, we're happy to see it," Lawson said.
It's unclear when court proceedings could begin. Early indications are attorneys would argue the case through legal briefs, not a trial.
Meanwhile, a resolution in the state house asking the Delaware Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter was tabled this week