By Expert: Mike Haley, Ph.D.
In early 2011, I was comfortably ensconced in what I believed would be my retirement home. Sitting on a ridge overlooking the Dunnavant Valley in north Alabama. The house location allowed me to look across the valley and view the changing seasons and the abundant wildlife which frequented the property. All was good.
Then the telephone rang. My good friend, Randy Seal,the longtime Assessor in Washington Parish, Louisiana, spoke, “I’ll run for Sheriff in Washington Parish if you will agree to come home and be my Chief Deputy.” The offer was appealing and I accepted. I was born and raised in Washington Parish and home always holds a special attraction. To make a long story short, Randy Seal became Sheriff Randy Seal and I moved to Washington Parish.
One of the first things I noticed during the transition period before then Sheriff-elect Seal took office was the signage on the front of the Sheriff’s Office complex which read “Washington Parish Sheriff’s Department.” “There is no such thing as a Sheriff’s Department in Louisiana,” I told myself, “only a Sheriff’s Office.” Sheriff Seal agreed and corrected the sign within his first month as Sheriff. The sign now reads “Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office.”
Signs don’t erase mindsets,however, and I was constantly correcting our staff and others as to the correct name of the Sheriff’s Office. To make matters worse, our local governmental body referred to the Sheriff’s Office as a sub-agency of the parish. Education as to the proper name of the Sheriff’s Office did not come easy and we are still not there.
As you might have already guessed, one of my pet peeves is the incorrect and improper identification of a Sheriff’s Office as a department of parish/county government. Although some states do have Sheriff’s Departments, most have the Office of Sheriff, commonly referred to as the Sheriff’s Office. Generally, the designation of Office is the result of its creation in the state constitution. A Sheriff’s Office is a creature of the state constitution while a Sheriff’s Department most likely is a creature of the state legislature.
And what is the difference? A 1987 article in the NSA magazine quotes Black’s Law Dictionary which offers these definitions:
Department: “One of the major divisions of the executive branch of the government…generally, a branch of division of governmental administration.”
Office: “A right, and correspondent duty, to exercise a public trust. A public charge or employment…the most frequent occasions to use the word arise with reference to a duty and power conferred on an individual by the government; and when this is the connection, ‘public office’ is a usual and more discriminating expression…in the constitutional sense,the term implies an authority to exercise administering the laws.”
The NSA article goes on to say, “Clearly,the office of sheriff is not simply another department of county government. Its internal operations are the sole responsibility of the sheriff…The office of sheriff…is a constitutional office…having exclusive powers and authority. The powers are not subject to the dictates of a county manager or the whims of a county council.”
As you know by now, Louisiana is one of those states where the Office of Sheriff is embedded in the state constitution. The Louisiana Constitution creates the Office of Sheriff in Article 5, §27. “In each parish a sheriff shall be elected for a term of four years. He shall be the chief law enforcement officer in the parish…” Many other state constitutions contain similar language.
Both state and federal courts in Louisiana have recognized the Office of Sheriff.
Nall v. Parish of Iberville, 542 So. 2d 145, 149 n.4 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1989), referring to Articled 5, §27 of the Louisiana constitution,states in part,“…the sheriff’s office was not intended to be a unit of local government.”
Nielson v. Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, 242 So. 2d 91, 94 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1970),states,“The court is of the opinion that as a matter of law, the Parish of Jefferson exercises no power or discretion in the functioning of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office is a constitutional office. It exists and functions independently of the governing body of the Parish.”
The federal district court weighed into this conclusion in Salvagio v. Doe, 2013 WL 6623921, *2 (E.D.La. 2013). “…the sheriff is a virtually autonomous local government official who occupies a constitutional office which exists and functions independently of the governing body of the parish. Accordingly,parish governments have no authority over parish sheriffs or their deputies…”
Many other state constitutions contain similar language and, most likely, can cite similar court decisions affirming the reality of the Office of Sheriff. The bottom line is this. Sheriffs and others should acknowledge the Office as the autonomous body it is and manage it accordingly. While the Office of Sheriff is bound by federal and state constitutions and statutes, it is not a subordinate office to any other local governing body.