The three candidates for Okanogan County sheriff, including the incumbent, made a rather startling assertion at last week’s public forum. As noted in the Methow Valley News story about the event, “All three said that they reserve the right not to enforce laws they deem unconstitutional.”
There is no such right — or at least none that we can find.
Sheriffs have a good deal of latitude, discretion and authority when it comes to enforcing the law. But they are neither qualified nor authorized to decide what is constitutional and what is not. The Legislature sets the laws, and if those statutes are legally challenged it is the judiciary that determines whether they are constitutional. Some sheriffs have argued that they would not enforce a specific law until the courts declared it constitutional. They got it backwards. It’s the law until declared unconstitutional.
The oath of office for law enforcement officers is unequivocal: They take a vow to uphold the laws of the state and the United States. Nowhere in the oath does it say, “unless I disagree.”
The state’s statutes are similarly explicit: “Shall execute the process and orders of the courts of justice or judicial officers, when delivered for that purpose, according to law.” According to law. And: “No sheriff shall appear or practice as attorney in any court, except in their own defense.” And again: “Shall attend the sessions of the courts of record held within the county, and obey their lawful orders or directions.”
Doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room there. According to an article on the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Police and Public Service website, “The state’s attorney general and other law enforcement officials have said that while local sheriffs have broad discretion over how to enforce state laws they may not unilaterally decline to enforce a law absent a court determination that the law violates the federal or the state constitution.”
Law enforcement doesn’t have to like all executive branch directives, or wholeheartedly embrace what the Legislature does in the name of reform. The state’s law enforcement community has had good reason to object to some things that have come out of Olympia the past couple of years. Legislative “reforms” have made their jobs more difficult or, in some cases, nearly impossible. They have felt hamstrung by unreasonable restrictions passed by people who don’t fully understand what law enforcement is up against in the real world, day-to-day.
When objections to the Legislature’s recent actions were fairly raised, some of those measures were revised or corrected. But there are still problems that local law enforcement can legitimately point to as detrimental to their duties and by extension harmful to the public.
That does not mean they get to ignore what’s on the books. Law enforcement leaders are expected to obey and enforce the laws. The three candidates at last week’s forum seemed to suggest that, in some cases of their own choosing, they might do neither.
That’s unacceptable. To assume that the sheriff can cherry-pick the state’s statutes conjures up some scary scenarios that, in the extreme, could lead to rogue actions that defy established law.
Sheriffs are elected officials, answerable to the people and bound by their oath. They are not independent arbiters of the law. You should challenge any candidate who says otherwise to cite the specific statue that allows them to ignore specific statutes. If the candidates would like to clarify or modify what they meant at the forum, we’d be happy to hear from them. We would require that they specifically reference the state-granted authority they have to interpret or ignore constitutional law.
Being a county sheriff is a tough job, and getting more so. In Okanogan County, the sheriff’s office is responsible for responding to all kinds of calls in a area larger than some states. The sheriff must be an administrator, supervisor, public relations manager and budget juggler as well as an able and experienced law enforcement officer. The sheriff also has to work well with the county’s other department heads and board of commissioners.
That’s a lot to ask and expect. Each of the three candidates is an experienced, well-credentialed law enforcement officer. Last week’s public forum, hosted by the Twisp Valley Grange, was a great opportunity to learn more about the three candidates and their views. Each candidate can and will make their best case for why they should be the electorate’s choice.
What they can’t make a case for is acting as if the sheriff is outside the law. That is a dangerous path to take even one step down.