Constitutional Corner: What is the Office of the Sheriff?

eric Levett
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When people hear the word Sheriff, who do you think they immediately visualize?  The Sheriff of Nottingham from the days of Robin Hood?  Sheriff Pat Garrett, who served in Lincoln County, who killed Billy the Kid?  The fictional Sheriff Andy Griffith of Mayberry, the model of community policing before the term was invented?  As a citizen of Rockdale County, you should know what a Sheriff is, what makes the Office of the Sheriff unique in law enforcement, why it should be called the Sheriff’s Office and not a Sheriff’s Department, and why it is important to preserve its direct accountability to the citizens via the election process.

In Georgia, the Sheriff is both a constitutional and a county officer.  The constitutionality of the office derives primarily from English Common Law.  The status as a county office is drawn from a number of general constitutional provisions relating to the office.  There are four constitutional/county officers in the state of Georgia:  Sheriff, Probate Judge, Clerk of Superior Court and the Tax Commissioner.

The Office of the Sheriff is the oldest office known to the common law system.  Constitutional officers are elected and are not subordinates or employees of the county.  All county officers have general constitutional standards required of all of them.  However, there are many specific constitutional standards that relate only to the Office of Sheriff.

The first mention of sheriff dates back to 600 B.C. in the Bible in Daniel 3:2, which recounts the presence of the sheriff at the setting up of the golden image by the Chaldean King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar.  Although some say this is just a mere translation, it’s in the Bible, and it’s clearly saying that sheriffs have been around before Christ.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American sheriffs were assigned a broad range of responsibilities by colonial and state legislatures.  Some responsibilities, such as law enforcement and tax collecting were carried over from England.  Others were added, such as overseeing the jails and workhouses.

As America moved westward, the concept of the county jail and office of the sheriff moved also.  The sheriff was desperately needed to establish order in the lawless territories where power belonged to the fastest draw and most accurate shot.  Most western sheriffs kept the peace by virtue of their authority rather than by their guns.

In 1784, Georgia adopted the common law and statutes of England that were in use prior to May, 1776.  The Constitution of the State of Georgia, common law, and the General Assembly control the authority, rights, and duties of the Sheriff.

The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office is believed to be the oldest law enforcement agency in Georgia, and one of the oldest in the United States, having been established in 1732.

Because there were no policies or guidelines for sheriffs to follow, a Denver, Colorado police chief and local sheriff developed a set of guidelines to follow.

  • Never hit a prisoner over the head with your pistol, because you may afterwards want to use your weapon & find it disabled.
  • Never attempt to make an arrest without being sure of your authority.
  • When you attempt to make an arrest of a desperado, have your pistol in your hand or be ready to draw when you make yourself known…­“It is better to kill two men than to allow one to kill you.”
  • After your prisoner is arrested & disarmed, treat him as a prisoner should be treated – as kindly as his conduct will permit. You will find that if you do not protect your prisoners when they are in your possession, those whom you afterwards attempt to arrest will resist you more fiercely
  • Never trust much to the honor of prisoners…nine out of ten of them have no honor.


Many do not understand the difference in a Sheriff’s Department and the Sheriff’s Office.  The Office of the Sheriff is a constitutional office that holds exclusive power and authority.  It is more than another department of county government.  The operations are the sole responsibility of the sheriff, not the local county government.  County department heads are subordinate to the county administrator or manager because they are a division of county government, and work for the department head and for the board of commissioner.

In other words, there is no such thing as a Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff is the duly elected and lawfully commissioned chief law enforcement officer of the county and has the DUTY to preserve the peace and protect the lives, persons, property, health and morals of the people; the keeper of the jail; and lastly, the arm and the sword of the honorable court.

As your elected Sheriff, I will continue to uphold my constitutional office with dignity while maintaining my responsibility to you, the citizens.  I take this role seriously and proudly, and fight daily to preserve Rockdale County’s Office of the Sheriff.

On Common Ground News

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