History of the Sheriff’s Office

History of the Sheriff’s Office

 

The office of Sheriff is one of antiquity. It is the oldest Law Enforcement office know within the common-law system and it has always been accorded great dignity and high trust. For the most part, the Office of Sheriff evolved of necessity. Were it not for laws which require enforcing, there would have been no necessity for the Sheriff. There would have been no need for the development of police administrative, criminology, criminalists, etc. This is not the case however. Man learned quite early that all is not orderly in the universe. All times and all places have generated those who covet the property of their neighbors and who are willing to expropriate this property by any means. As such, man’s quest for equity and order gave birth to the office of Sheriff, the history of which begins in the Old Testament and continues through the annals of Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, there is no honorable law enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that of the County Sheriff. And today, as in the past, the County Sheriff is a peace officer entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of domestic tranquility. Sheriffs have served and protected the English-speaking peoples for a thousand years. The Office of Sheriff and the law enforcement, judicial and correctional functions he performs are more than 1,000 years old. The office of Sheriff dates back at least to the reign of Alfred the Great of England, and some scholars even argue that the office of Sheriff was first created during the Roman occupation of England. Around 500 A.D., Germanic tribes from Europe (called the Anglo-Saxons) began an invasion of Celtic England which eventually led over the centuries to the consolidation of Anglo-Saxons England as a unified kingdom under Alfred the Great late in the 9th Century. Alfred divided England into geographic units called “shires”, or counties. In 1066, William the conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons and instituted his own Norman government in England. Both under the Anglo-Saxons and under the Normans, the King of England appointed a representative called a “reeve” to act on behalf of the King in each “shire” or county. The “shire-reeve” or King’s representative in each county became the “Sheriff” as the English language changed over the years. The shire-reeve or Sheriff was the chief law enforcement officer of each county in the year 1000 A.D. The concepts of “county” and Sheriff” were essentially the same as they have been during the previous 900 years of English legal history. Because of the English heritage of the American colonies, the United States adopted the English law and legal institutions as its owner. Clearly, the Sheriff is the only viable officer remaining of the ancient offices, and his contemporary responsibility as conservator of the peace has been influenced greatly by modern society. As the crossbow gave way to the primitive flintlock, and the flintlock to the colt.45, the sheriff is not unaccustomed to change. But now, perhaps more than ever before in history, law enforcement is faced with complex, moving, rapid changes in methodology, technology, and social attitudes. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his “The Value of Constitutions”, The office of Sheriff is the most important of all the executive office of the county”.

One of five county officials listed in the state constitution, Sheriffs in Georgia are full-service county officers. Article IX Section I of the constitution specifies that Sheriffs “shall be elected by the qualified voters of their respective counties for a term of four years and shall have such qualifications, powers and duties as provided by general law.” Most of the qualifications, powers and duties of a Sheriff in Georgia are detailed in Title 15, Chapter 16 of state law. Among other things, the law states that “the sheriff is the basic law enforcement officer of the several counties of this state.” Section 10 makes it clear that the sheriff has as much authority within municipalities as he does in unincorporated areas of his county, although many sheriffs refrain from performing standard law enforcement functions within municipalities that have their own police department unless specifically requested to do so, or are required to do so in order to fulfill other provisions in state law. In addition to law enforcement, sheriffs or their deputies execute and return all processes and orders of the courts; receive, transport, and maintain custody of incarcerated individuals for court; attend the place or places of holding elections; keep all courthouses, jails, public grounds, and other county property; maintain a register of all precious metal dealers; enforce the collection of taxes that may be due to the state; as well as numerous other duties. The office of Sheriff in Georgia existed in colonial times, and was included in the first official constitution of Georgia in 1777. There is no limit to how many terms a Sheriff may serve. Title 15, Chapter 16, Section 40 of Georgia law specifies that, upon reaching 75 years of age, a Sheriff who has held that office for 45 or more years automatically holds the honorary office of sheriff emeritus of the State of Georgia.
The first historical account of a Meriwether County Sheriff dates back to 1827, Joseph Weaver was first to hold the elected position. Including current Sheriff, Chuck Smith, there have been 29 men to follow the path of Weaver. Several of those men served multiple terms. The importance of the modern sheriff was stressed by President Ronald Reagan when he addressed the National Sheriffs’ Association on June 21, 1984. He said “Thank you for standing up for this nation’s dream of personal freedom under the rule of law. Thank you for standing against those that would transform that dream into a nightmare of wrongdoing and lawlessness. And thank you for your service to your communities, to your country and to the cause of law and justice.”

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