Should Pennsylvania Sheriffs and Deputies Have More Authority?
A bill just voted down by a Pennsylvania State House of Representatives committee could have granted county sheriffs and their deputies additional authority to apprehend suspected criminals and investigate crimes. The idea had been met with a surprising amount of opposition from a number of law enforcement agencies, unions and some legislators around the state. Sheriffs in rural areas, however, are still seeking an increase in the authority granted to their deputies, especially since a weak economy has prevented the establishment (or continued presence of) local police forces. In those areas, since deputies serve no real investigative or law enforcement function, state police are called upon for any crime, no matter how minor.
What Are the Current Limitations on the Authority of These Officers?
Current Pennsylvania law treats sheriffs differently than other police officers. Instead of being seen as active investigators and crime fighters, deputies in Pennsylvania are more of an extension of the court’s authority over citizens. Their duties are limited in ways that a comparable law enforcement officer’s duties are not, due in no small part to a series of cases decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 2006 and 2007. Deputies are tasked with:
- Providing security in government buildings like courtrooms and county offices
- Transporting prison inmates
- Serving civil papers like restraining orders, foreclosure notices and eviction notices (among others)
- Providing input and support to county drug or gang task forces
- Making arrests for felony-level crimes occurring in their presence
What New Duties Would Have Been Authorized?
The new law, if passed, would have given sheriffs and deputies additional arrest authority, investigative leeway and evidence-gathering ability. They would be able to make arrests in a larger geographic area (within 500 feet of a county government building) and would not be limited to only felony-level or breach-of-the-peace incidents happening in their presence, instead investigating a wide range of criminal activity when called upon.
What Happens Now?
Since rural areas still need an additional police presence, many government officials and public interest groups in those areas still want sheriffs to have at least some of the law enforcement power restored, bridging the gap between dwindling local police numbers and the already-stretched state police force. Until such a time as the law is changed, however, state case law will govern, and the precedent has been set – sheriffs and their deputies can only serve in a limited capacity in criminal investigations and arrests. If you are facing criminal charges and are concerned about the improper presence of one of these officers in the case against you, seek the counsel of a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area.