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Usually the chief peace officer of a county.

The modern office of sheriff in the United States descends from a one-thousand-year-old English tradition: a "shire-reeve" (shire-keeper) is the oldest appointment of the English crown. Because county governments were typically the first established units of government in newly settled American territories, sheriffs were among the first elected public officials in an area and thus developed a leading role in local law enforcement.

A dichotomy frequently exists today between a sheriff's jurisdiction and the jurisdiction of a local police department. A metropolitan area may encompass an entire county or more; police departments and sheriffs will often maintain concurrent jurisdiction in the overlapping area. A sheriff may assume that a local police department will do its duty in enforcing the law, but the primary obligation rests with the sheriff and requires him to act when evidence of neglect of that duty exists.

Some state constitutions specifically provide for the office of sheriff, and state legislatures frequently establish conditions of office. Sheriffs are typically chosen in a county election. To serve as sheriff, an individual must usually meet certain requirements: residence within the jurisdiction, no criminal record, U.S. citizenship, and compliance with provisions guarding against nepotism. Sometimes officeholders must also satisfy certain age, physical, and educational requirements. A sheriff typically takes an oath and posts a bond upon taking office to ensure the faithful performance of the duties of the office. Compensation typically consists of commissions or fees for particular services performed, a fixed salary, or a combination of fees and salary.

State statutes or state constitutions regulate many duties of a sheriff and emphasize preserving the peace and enforcing criminal laws. Sheriffs arrest and commit to jail felons and other lawbreakers, including pretrial detainees and sentenced prisoners. They transport prisoners to state penal facilities and mental patients to state commitment facilities. In addition, a sheriff is usually responsible for the custody and care of the county courthouse and the jail, attends upon courts of record in serving process, and often has the power to summon jurors. As an officer of the court, a sheriff is subject to a court's orders and direction. Sheriffs also have the power to serve process, including summons, mesne (intermediate) process, and final process.

State statutes define a sheriff's role in serving process. Generally a sheriff is the proper officer to execute all writs returnable to court, unless another person is appointed. A sheriff must execute process without attempting to determine its validity. A court will not direct or advise a sheriff as to the manner of executing process, but she has a duty to effect service promptly, respectfully, and without unnecessary violence. A sheriff must exercise due diligence but need not expend all possible efforts in effecting service.

As part of the traditional common-law duties passed down from the English, sheriffs retain the power to summon the aid of a posse, or Posse Comitatus, as it is sometimes called. Ideally, a posse furnishes immediate, able-bodied assistance to a sheriff in need. For example, a sheriff may summon bystanders to assist in recapturing an escaped prisoner. These persons are neither officers nor private citizens. They are generally clothed with the same protection of the law as the sheriff and have full authority to provide the sheriff with any necessary assistance.

Sheriffs also levy writs of attachment, that is, the seizure of a debtor's property pursuant to a court order. The sheriff must safeguard seized goods from damage or loss, but he does not absolutely ensure their safety. Generally, property that is lost, destroyed, or damaged by something other than a sheriff's neglect will not result in liability for the sheriff. After seizure, the goods are sold at a sheriff's auction to satisfy creditors' claims. A sheriff decides the time, manner, and place of a Judicial Sale, collects purchase monies, and distributes the proceeds pursuant to court instructions. A sheriff may not purchase property at a sheriff's sale.

In general, a sheriff may be liable in damages to any person injured as a consequence of a breach of duty connected with the office. A sheriff may not exceed the authority given by law: a sheriff who uses legal authority for illegal conduct is liable as if she had acted without process of law. Some instances where liability may be imposed include a negligent failure to seize sufficient available property that would reasonably be expected to satisfy a debt, a failure to execute process delivered for execution, a levy upon the wrong party, or an excessive levy. Liability is in a personal capacity, not in an official capacity. Limited Immunity usually protects a sheriff from liability for acts performed in conjunction with official duties but will not shield her from liability caused by overstepping the authority of the office.

A sheriff typically has broad discretion in appointing, removing, and setting conditions of employment for deputies. A deputy is said to be clothed with the power and authority of the sheriff with respect to the sheriff's ministerial duties. For example, a deputy may act for the sheriff in the service and return of process, in making an execution or other judicial sale (including the appraisal of the property as a prerequisite to such sale), in executing a deed to a purchaser, in serving an execution for taxes, and in serving a Garnishment summons.

A deputy's acts, breaches, or misconduct committed in the performance of official duties may result in liability on the sheriff's behalf. For example, in the absence of statutory authority to the contrary, a sheriff could be held liable for a deputy's reckless or wanton acts during an arrest, Negligence in caring for and protecting prisoners, or failure to serve process or return a writ.

A sheriff may be removed from office for a variety of reasons, including habitual intoxication or intoxication on the job; misconduct in office, such as misuse of public funds or property; refusal to enforce the law; mistreatment of prisoners; neglect of duty; nepotism; or conviction of a crime.

Further readings

Brennan, Columb. 1992. "Sheriffs' 1,000 Years." Law Institute Journal 66 (December).

Gullion, Steve. 1992. "Sheriffs in Search of a Role." New Law Journal (August 14).


Service of Process.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. the top law enforcement officer for a county, usually elected, responsible for police protection outside of incorporated cities, management of the county jail, and providing bailiffs for protection of the courts. A sheriff also handles such civil activities as serving summons, subpenas and writs, conducting judgment sales, and fulfilling various functions ordered by the courts. The office was brought to the United States from England and is unknown in most nations which use federal and state police. Canada, for example, has the highly-professional Royal Canadian Mounted Police (and its Quebec equivalent) for most police work outside cities. The position of sheriff has been criticized as lacking training standards, being overly political, not being coordinated with other jurisdictions, and being hampered by its lack of authority beyond the county line except when in "hot pursuit" of a suspect who crosses the county line. The sheriff's uniformed police are called "deputy sheriffs," with the number two person often entitled "under sheriff." (See: bailiff, sheriff's sale)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


1 the shire reeve.
2 In England, the sheriff is the chief officer of the county. The sheriff is the official to whom judgments of the High Court are sent for enforcement although in practice enforcement is carried out by the under-sheriff In cases where the sheriff cannot act, writs are sent to the coroner and then passed to the under-sheriff to act for the coroner.
3 In Scotland, the sheriff is a judge who sits in the sheriff court with powers to deal with many civil actions, including many of unlimited value, and a criminal jurisdiction to sentence for up to three years if sitting with a jury.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

SHERIFF. The name of the chief officer of the county. In Latin he is called vice comes, because in England he represented the comes or earl. His name is said to be derived from the Saxon seyre, shire or county, and reve, keeper, bailiff, or guardian.
     2. The general duties of the sheriff are, 1st. To keep the peace within the county; he may apprehend, and commit to prison all persons who break the peace or attempt to break it, and bind any one in a recognizance to keep the peace. He is required ex officio, to pursue and take all traitors, murderers, felons and rioters. He has the keeping of the county gaol and he is bound to defend it against all attacks. He may command the posse comitatus. (q.v.)
     3.-2d. In his ministerial capacity, the sheriff is bound to execute within his county or bailiwick, all process issuing from the courts of the commonwealth.
     4.-3d. The sheriff also possesses a judicial capacity, but this is very much circumscribed to what it was at common law in England. It is now generally confined to ascertain damages on writs of inquiry and the like.
     5. Generally speaking the sheriff has no authority out of his county. 2 Rolle's Rep. 163; Plowd, 37 a. He may, however, do mere ministerial acts out of his county, as making a return. Dalt. Sh. 22. Vide, generally, the various Digests and Abridgments, h.t.; Dalt. Sher.; Wats. Off. and Duty of Sheriff; Wood's Inst. 75; 18 Eng. Com. Law Rep. 177; 2 Phil. Ev. 213; Chit. Pr. Index, h.t.; Chit. Pr. Law, Index, h.t.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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