Sheriffs have a unique role in working with federal authorities

There has been a lot of interest recently about the interaction between local law enforcement and their counterparts on the federal level.

This very week, there was a forum involving several county sheriff’s to discuss just that topic.  A sheriff’s office should be an example of the relationship between the citizen and government. That is, it should be as close and direct as possible.

Moving in the other direction has been the federalizing of criminal law. The idea that even a significant portion of criminal activity would be pursued by the federal government is relatively new and was not contemplated at the creation of our nation or our Constitution.

For most of our history, there were few situations where federal agents were empowered to make arrests or bring criminal charges. The intent of the Constitution was to place the police power firmly, if not exclusively, within the confines of the states, with the over-arching protections of the Constitution as a shield from abuse by all levels of government.

This began to change as criminal activity spread across state lines and various jurisdictions. Congress began to pass statutes having to do with crime that crossed state boundaries — an action that was found to be constitutional as it involved issues among the states, properly of concern to the federal government.

Eventually, secondary access to criminalization began to occur as Congress noticed a good way to build power and appear to be solving problems was by passing new criminal laws. The justification was that if an activity was regulated by the federal government then criminal statutes could be associated with interfering with those activities or institutions.

An example of this is how the FBI gets involved in bank robberies because banks are federally regulated institutions.

All of this thinking brings us to where we are now, which is to have an unrelenting flow of criminal statutes coming from Congress, dealing with every federal agency and tasks associated with their various missions, most torturously based on some passing relationship to interstate commerce.

We now have approximately 4,000 federal criminal statutes alone, to say nothing of the various regulations.  It’s absurd to think any one person in the federal government even knows all of these statutes or what the myriad agencies and swarms of agents enforcing them are doing on a day-to-day basis.

Many now feel it falls to state and local law enforcement to set ground rules for the behavior of federal agents in their jurisdictions. This sounds strange, as we are accustomed through movies and television to federal agents flashing documentation and assuming control of any case from local law enforcement. And it’s a good thing, because the federal agents have nice suits and sedans while the sheriffs are usually portrayed as rubes driving around in 1986 Blazers.

But it’s not really the law. Despite the increase in Washington’s power, there must be some legitimate federal jurisdiction for them to involve themselves. Otherwise it’s a local matter.

The office of the Western sheriff, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful and multifaceted of almost any elected office. The duties go far beyond municipal law enforcement, which is another critter all together.

Most municipal police chiefs are just another department head and, in a system like Grand Junction’s, they are no different than the parks, public works or any other department head. If you want to see unresponsive government, try a department head who works for an unelected city manager who works for a part-time city council that isn’t involved in supervising anyone but the city manager.

Sheriffs are different. They’re elected, for the most part, and have their own constituency. It’s their county, just as it is yours. In Western states like our own, the federal government still retains control over vast swathes of land and sheriff’s departments must interact and function with federal authorities. For the most part, those relationships are healthy and good for the citizens.

Problems usually arise only in instances where unfamiliar agencies parachute into the jurisdiction. Then it is up to the local government to make sure they act within their authority. Remember, everybody has to play by the rules — even Fox and Mulder.

Rick Wagner writes more about politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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