Historically, a sheriff was a legal official in England with responsibility for protecting a shire, his formal title being a conjunction of “shire reeve.” It is called a shrievalty in England and Wales, and a sheriffdom in Scotland. The old English term designated a royal official (reeve) responsible for keeping the peace throughout an entire (shire) or county on behalf of the king.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American colonial and state legislatures often assigned a broad range of responsibilities to the sheriff which included the familiar role of law enforcement and tax collection. Other duties were new, such as overseeing jails, houses of corrections and work houses.

As Americans moved westward, so did the office of sheriff and the use of jails. Settlers desperately needed the sheriff to establish order in the lawless territories where power belonged to those with the fastest draw and the most accurate shot. Most western sheriffs, however, kept the peace by virtue of their authority. With only a few exceptions, sheriffs resorted to firepower much
less often than we have seen depicted in movies and on TV.


The Sheriff Today

There are over 3,000 counties in the United States, and almost every one of them has an elected sheriff, except for Alaska. The office of sheriff is established either by the state constitution or by an act of state legislature. There are only two states in which the sheriff is not elected by the voters. In Rhode Island, sheriffs are appointed by the governor; in Hawaii, deputy sheriffs serve in the Department of Public Safety’s Sheriff’s Division.

A regular officer of a sheriff’s office is typically known as a deputy sheriff, sheriff’s deputy or informally as a deputy. In a small sheriff’s office, the deputies are supervised directly by the sheriff. Large sheriffs offices have several ranks in a similar manner to a police department. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has thousands of regular deputies, who are 8 ranks below the sheriff. The actual second-in-command of the sheriff typically holds the title of chief deputy or undersheriff. In some counties, the undersheriff is the warden of the county jail.


Law Enforcement

A sheriff always has the power to make arrests within his or her own county. Some states extend this authority to adjacent counties or to the entire state. Many sheriffs’ offices also perform routine patrol functions such as traffic control, accident investigations, and transportation of prisoners. Larger departments may perform criminal investigations, and some unusually large sheriffs’ offices command an air patrol, a mounted patrol, or a marine patrol.

Your Rights After Arrest

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that as soon as you are taken into custody you must be informed of the following:

(1) You have a Constitutional Right to remain silent.
(2) Anything you say can be held against you.
(3) You have the right to legal counsel and that if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.
(4) If you choose, you may have a lawyer present during interrogation.

In addition to advising you of your MIRANDA RIGHTS, the arresting authorities must respect your rights. For example, you cannot legally be required or forced by a police officer or any one else to talk, to answer questions, or sign any papers. If by threats, by persistent questioning or other means of coercion, you are forced to give incriminating information, you can prevent its use against you in court.

Sheriffs still enlist the aid of the citizens. The National Neighborhood Watch Program, sponsored by the National Sheriffs’ Association, allows citizens and law enforcement officials to cooperate in keeping communities safe. HOWEVER, it is my advice to you do not talk to them.

Court Duties

Sheriffs are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the court. A sheriff or deputy may be required to attend all court sessions; to act as bailiff; to take charge of juries whenever they are outside the courtroom; to serve court papers; to extradite prisoners; to collect taxes, or to perform other court-related functions.

Jail Administration

Most sheriffs’ offices maintain and operate county jails or other detention centers, community corrections facilities such as work-release, and halfway houses. Sheriffs are responsible for supervising inmates, protecting their rights and providing food, clothing, exercise, recreation and medical services. As jail conditions continue to improve, sheriffs and their departments are earning increased respect and recognition as professionals.


Highest Law

By design, county sheriffs are supreme law enforcement officers in American counties. Before anything else, a County Sheriff’s job as a peace officer is to protect and defend the constitutional rights of citizens in the county from all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” Accordingly, county sheriffs are America’s last defense against an out-of-control federal government, which seems to be increasingly determined to take away citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.

This fact is the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Printz, Mack v. United States (1997), which overturned parts of the Brady Act of 1993, a gun-control law. Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz of Montana and Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack of Arizona brought the case when federal agents ordered them to help register guns. Rather than comply with the order under a misinterpretation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the two sheriffs challenged the unconstitutional law and won in the Supreme Court.

Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority in that 1997 decision said that the “States are not subject to federal direction” and that the U.S. Congress only had “discreet and enumerated powers” and that federal impotency was “rendered express” by the Tenth Amendment, he confirmed that the Sheriff is the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) of the county and also proclaimed that the States “retained an inviolable sovereignty.” Scalia went even further in this landmark decision, one in which two small-town sheriffs headed the Feds “off at the pass” and sent them on their way. Scalia, in his infinite obligation to the Constitution, took this entire ruling to the tenth power when he said, “The Constitution protects us from our own best intentions… so that we may resist the temptation to concentrate power in one location as an expedient solution to the crisis of the day.” Obviously the Sheriff is the Peoples’ last line of defense against a government gone rogue.

Justice Scalia also wrote: that the Supremacy Clause does not make the U.S. government the supreme authority in the United States; rather, the Supremacy Clause makes the U.S. Constitution and all laws that abide by it the supreme law of the land. Further, Scalia said that states and their subdivisions have an equal authority to enforce the U.S. Constitution within their jurisdictions: “Our citizens have two political capacities, one state and one federal, each protected from incursion by the other.”  Just in case his point wasn’t clear, Scalia quoted James Madison, Father of the Constitution, in Federalist 51: “The local or municipal authorities form distinct and independent portions of the Supremacy, no more subject within their respective spheres, to the general authority than the general authority is subject to them, within its own sphere.”


Independent Authority

It is this independent authority of the sheriff, within his county sphere, that can help protect citizens from abusive federal power – or abusive state power, for that matter. His role as a peace officer is to make sure that all citizens, regardless of their status or position, are treated equally under the law. The fact that the people elect their sheriff makes his position even more powerful, because the county sheriff is accountable only to the people who elected him. All of the other police are not elected by the people and they have no duty to protect you. They are merely employees of the city, state, or federal corporations that hired them. Their masters are the directors of the corporations and not the people.

Voters should take comfort in a long history of county sheriffs standing up for the Constitution, not just in our early history, but also in modern times. As examples, consider the Lemhi County Idaho Sheriff Brett Barslou’s move to organize 500 citizens in support of a rancher who had shot a gray wolf that killed one of his calves. The sheriff’s actions forced three armed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents to back off their attempt to serve a warrant. Contemplate Sheriff Richard Mack’s support for a local board of supervisors within his Graham County Arizona jurisdiction. Mack forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to back off from a threat to fine the town $50,000 a day for rebuilding a washed-out bridge without the “required” 10-year environmental impact study. The town built the bridge that year, and the town paid no fines. Also note how sheriffs throughout the State of Wyoming have told federal agents they must get permission before they do anything within their various jurisdictions.

Of the 50 U.S. states, 48 have sheriffs. The two exceptions are Alaska, which does not have counties, and Connecticut, which has no county governments. The federal district and the 5 populated territories also do not have county governments. There were 3,081 sheriff’s offices as of 2015. These range in size from very small (one- or two-member) forces in sparsely populated rural areas to large, full-service law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which is the largest sheriff’s office and the seventh largest law enforcement agency in the United States, with 16,400 members and 400 reserve deputies.


There are two federal equivalents of the sheriff; the first is the United States Marshals Service, an agency of the Department of Justice. There are 94 United States Marshals, one for each federal judicial district. The U.S. Marshal and his or her Deputy Marshals are responsible for the transport of prisoners and security for the United States district courts, and also issue and enforce certain civil processes.

The other is the Marshal of the United States Supreme Court who performs all court related duties for the Supreme Court of the United States.