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January 28, 2011

Pa. sheriffs still pushing for clarification of their powers

MEADVILLE — A push to restore and clarify sheriffs’ powers as law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania died in committee in 2010, but Crawford County Sheriff Nick Hoke and others around the state are vowing to keep their effort alive this year.

Testifying at a Pennsylvania House Labor Relations Committee hearing in Erie in September 2010, Hoke and other sheriffs said they and their deputies are often bound up in their duties by vague definitions of just what  — and where, and when — their authority lies.

Citing what he said are clear examples of the problem, Hoke detailed one instance in which he said a Crawford County deputy on routine duty at the county courthouse was told by an informant that drugs had been hidden in a public restroom there. Instead of being able to direct the deputy to act on the tip immediately, Hoke said, he had to call local police and turn over the investigation.

In another instance, Hoke said, his deputies had to spot-question themselves as to whether they even had the authority to respond and detain a suspect after a witness to an assault in progress approached them near the scene of the crime.

Sheriffs and their deputies, here and throughout the state, “need to know exactly what their authority is,” Hoke said at the September hearing. “It should not be left up to whats and ifs, but should be without question.”

That public hearing was the one of three on State House Bill 2585, which as proposed would have statutorily established investigative and arrest powers for the more than 2,000 sheriffs and their deputies statewide. According to the Sheriffs’ Association of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, various court rulings over the past 30 years have put those powers into question, creating a lack of definition of sheriffs’ and deputies’ authority beyond providing security for courthouses and court functions, serving papers in civil matters and issuing permits to carry firearms.

The bill “never got out of committee” following those hearings, Hoke told the Tribune Thursday, but “certainly (such legislation’s passage remains) our No. 1 priority in the Association.”

Hoke and others who support the effort have said there’s been a perception by those opposed to it that sheriffs are simply seeking to extend their current law enforcement powers, and that the legislation that’s been proposed would open the door to taking jobs away from municipal and state police officers. Other concerns have included the possibility of higher related costs for counties that could lead to tax increases.

Hoke and other proponents of the bill, however, maintain their goal is only to establish — not expand — the definitions of their authority, and that counties’ boards of commissioners would continue to have the final authority to vote on funding proposals for the sheriffs’ departments.

“We’re (only) trying to restore the powers we’ve always had” but that have become ill-defined, Hoke said Thursday.

Since House Bill 2585 went off state lawmakers’ table last year, the Sheriffs’ Association has established a five-member legislative committee aimed at regrouping the effort and meeting with various groups — including associations representing state and local police as well as county commissioners across the state — that have thus far stood in opposition to the effort.

“We’re still in communication with all the groups that were in opposition,” and there’s been some “positive feedback,” Hoke said, especially at the prospect of crafting new legislation more similar to House Bill 466, a previous proposal that many apparently feel was clearer in its wording and intent to provide for a simple restoration of sheriffs’ law enforcement powers.

Hoke said the topic is expected to be a key matter of discussion at a statewide sheriffs conference set for next month.

“We have to bring it to the public’s attention,” Hoke said, and “maybe spark some debate” on the issue.

“Hopefully,” he said, “this will be the year” that happens.

Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at rsmith@meadvilletribune.com.

 

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