Sheriffs 1 – Legislators 0

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Georgia has many pockets of institutional political power.  Few can rival that of the local sheriff.  A campaign for sheriff will increase voter turnout in most areas of the state well beyond the upper bands of expectations.  Once elected, a sheriff that remains free of scandal can generally count on having the position as long as he wants it.

In most non-urban or inner metro areas the local sheriff is the law.  County police forces aren’t common in most parts of the state.  The person who is held responsible for low crime rates and the public safety is the sheriff.  And in most communities, those that serve with longevity are revered by most and known to all.

Attempts to interfere with the power of local sheriffs are often futile efforts and are generally ill advised.  I was able to witness quite a few of these skirmishes growing up, as my home county of Fayette grew from a rural county of 12,000 to one holding 100,000 mostly newcomers.  Sheriff Randall Johnson served 32 years presiding over the growth and change.

There were quite a few county commissioners that attempted to quell his power.  Almost all came out on the losing end of that battle.  Toward the end of his tenure there were lawsuits between his office and the county.  Commissioners wanted control over the seized assets confiscated during drug busts.  In politics, of course, he who controls the purse controls the power.  Commissioners didn’t like the fact that there was a large sum of money and purchasing outside their control.

While the battles were fought in courts, the real battles were fought at the ballot box.  Sheriff Johnson withstood every challenge during his career, retiring on his own terms.  Many of the commissioners who opposed him were not so lucky.  Of course, them not understanding the politics of their own county, they seemed to have created their own luck.

The same battle was brought statewide this session with House Bill 1, a law to move the management of assets forfeited from drug busts to county commissioners.  Folks from Fayette County probably could have advised how well this would have gone over, but apparently no one asked.  And sometimes, it’s fun to let those under the gold dome learn some political lessons for themselves.  After all, as Georgia’s population has concentrated itself in the Atlanta suburbs, many now view the rural sheriff as a caricature rather than the seminal community leader that he is in much of the rest of the state.

The reaction local sheriffs were swift and blunt.  A quick Google search reveals sheriff’s across the state giving interviews to local papers and/or writing letters to the editor asking residents to contact their legislator asking them to vote against HB 1.  Sheriff’s don’t generally ask for much from the public that holds them in high regard, so when they do there is usually action.  Especially when they go directly to the people making the case that managing those funds as they see fit is a vital part of the local effort to keep crime low.

The reaction from the legislators seemed a bit more surprised.  A few took to Facebook  grousing “…the lobbyists/groups that have the most influence are not corporations but are the taxpayer paid mayors, county commissioners, and sheriffs.”  Another said “One thing I have taken from tonight is that tax payer supported lobbyist and other text payer supported groups have a significant influence over legislation in Georgia….”

With respect to these Representatives, they’re still not learning the proper lesson.  Referring to “mayors county commissioners, and sheriffs” as taxpayer supported lobbying groups is little short of arrogant.  While they are including organizations such as the Georgia Municipal Association under this umbrella, those groups serve those that are duly elected while the local folks are tending to the jobs they were elected to do.  Those local officials are actually leaders elected by the taxpayers, just like those in the legislator.  And many have a closer relationship with the people they serve than legislators.

There has been a growing disconnect between local officials and legislators for some time, largely over budgetary matters.  The growing sense of resentment of locally elected officials for not submitting to greater control from the state is concerning.

Local control still means something in much of the state.  The taxpayer supported legislators occasionally need to be reminded of that.


  1. drjay says:

    nice article. it makes me think of the sheriff in “chiefs” by stuart woods, his tenure spans 4 decades and includes brushes with st senators and even the lt governor as he presides over his feifdom…

  2. Kilkenny Kid says:

    Couldn’t disagree more Charlie! This state is strangling itself with almost 700 local governments. The #1 impediment to growth in Georgia is a surplus of local governments that advocate not for their citizens, but rather for their self-perpetuation.

      • elfiii says:

        Preach it brother! Two of my local “stranglers” live right around the corner from me. Thus “I know where you live Mr. city councilman”. It’s a good threat and effective too. 🙂

  3. WeymanCWannamakerJr says:

    Or you could deprive the sheriffs of a portion of their slush fund by legalizing marijuana. Tax the heck out of it, thereby increasing revenue to the state and counties while at the same time reducing some of the load on the sheriffs’ jail space requirements.

  4. OleDirtyBarrister says:

    A couple of errors in the original text. When referring to Fayette County as a county of 12,000 to 100,000 “mostly newcomers” should be replaced with “good for nothing, degenerate, yankee transplants.”

    I believe that you meant to say “legislature” instead of “just like those in the legislator.”

    The General Assembly and the electorate needs to give some attention to the way that the sheriff and other locally elected officials are compensated, particularly with respect to “commissions.” I’ve seen and heard things from local officials that indicate that they may interpret that differently across the state as to who receives the commission earned performing a public service with public employees and resources. The commissions would come from actions such as levies on money judgments and tax levies. One may find that some earn a lot more money than is budgeted as salary.

    Local sheriffs fight any efforts at oversight or reform because of the money. First, consider the potential from commissions. Second, a lot of sheriffs in Georgia are corrupt and make money from holding the position. Dodge and Telfair Counties wrote the book in that area, and I can’t recall them exactly, believe they have had three sheriffs go to prison within the last 20 years. Talbot County’s sheriff dept. was so corrupt that even the drug dealers and couriers were upset by it and reported them to the feds and thereafter helped bust them. The money Talbot got from drug busts and confiscation never hit the books and was promptly redistributed through the “widows and orphans fund.” If the County Commission gets hold of the money, it will be much harder to replenish the W&O Fund.

    • Rick Day says:

      this 100%

      Why are they fighting so hard over this? After all…we do not ask our bankers to patrol our neighborhoods and we should not ask our law enforcement to be tempted by ill gotten gains and handle large sums of money and/or drugs.

      Of course, 100% of the seized funds should go to state coffers to help pay for law enforcement efforts. Unfortunately, then the local gendarmes would have nothing to do with passing the pie over without a chance of a taste.

      This is why god made a mommy to put between the kid and the cookie jar. Some just can’t be trusted with the temptation.

  5. The issue shouldn’t be about the power of sheriffs… the issue should be about abusive drug laws that infringe on constitutionally protected rights of a free people. By the way… the office of sheriff should be abolished. It’s rediculous to elect law enforcement people. Each county should have their own countywide police force, and the chief would be hired. Find the most qualified person, not the best politician.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      It has to do with accountability and separation of power. Look at the biggest sources of police abuse, and they happen because the chief answers to the mayor and not to the voters.

      It’s the same set-up we’re “supposed” to have in Washington.

      If you are opposed to electing law enforcement at the local level, then perhaps we should do away with electing the president at the federal level. After all, they are all part of the enforcement branch of government, the executive.

      I for one have lived both in and out of city limits and after moving to the county, I will never go back (until the city annexes and annexes more and well . . . you can’t really escape it).

      You suggest that the position should not be based on popularity but, news flash, the mayor who hires the police chief is chosen based on politics. And since a police chief answers to that mayor, you haven’t really done anything to prevent that, except abolish an opportunity for people to vote for a separate officeholder in another branch of government.

      I swear, some of you need to go open a civics book and learn about separate branches of government, while we still have them.

      • Obviously you haven’t watched much news the past couple of years? A number of GA sheriff’s have been in trouble for abusing their positions. And I don’t quite see where electing a sheriff is necessary to maintaining our three branches of government? Judicial? Nah, that would be the judges. Legislative? Nah, that would be the city council or county commission. Executive? Nah, that would be the mayor or county commission chairman.

        The only offices at the local level that should be elected are those that have the power to tax… school boards, county commissions, and city councils… plus the judiciary. Why should the selection of a county clerk, tax commissioner, coroner, or county land surveyor be by popularity contest instead of by HIRING the most qualified person?

        • seenbetrdayz says:

          Obviously you haven’t watched much news the past couple of years? A number of GA sheriff’s have been in trouble for abusing their positions.

          And a FAR greater number of sheriffs haven’t. I’m not for weakening the office statewide just on account of a few bad apples. There’s this thing called “moving” that people do when they don’t like what goes on where they live, so if you have a cruddy sheriff, move. Or try to vote him out, but don’t just call for abolishing the office or else we’ll turn out like some sort of modern-day Sherwood Forest situation where the sheriff is just a henchman for the king, and no one questions the king.

        • john tyler says:

          The city council and commissioners are elected and they appoint police chiefs they can control and do control with tight ropes. Neither selection methods guarantees the qualification or lack of qualification for the person or the office.

          A far greater number of Sheriffs have served honorably over the years. I could take a few years worth of people in your profession and label your group as well.

    • Rick Day says:

      “…and a big bellied sheriff grabbed his gun and said ‘why ya do it’?”

      For decades, that was my vision of justice in Georgia.

  6. Will Durant says:

    The problem here is with the abuse of civil forfeiture laws at every level. Not just at the county level. These laws allow confiscation of your property without a criminal conviction and in some cases without criminal charges ever being filed. You are presumed guilty until you can prove your innocence and unlike criminal cases you cannot be provided with an attorney by the State if you cannot afford one. For small amounts of money it isn’t feasible to even hire an attorney to recover your money.

    For those of you thinking that presumed drug dealers deserve this kind of treatment there are cases on the books where cash seizures have been done without any drugs present, persons not proven to even be associated with drugs, and even carrying receipts indicating why they are carrying a large amount of cash.

    • john tyler says:

      False. Confiscation is not final until the case has been closed. I would agree that the justice system is designed by lawyers for lawyers to make money. Bet you won’t see any legislature calling for limits of lawyers.

      • Will Durant says:

        Title does not transfer until the civil case has been closed. The only misstatement I made here is that on the civil side the person is not presumed guilty, the property is assumed guilty until proven innocent. In other words, all that is required to satisfy the federal civil forfeiture laws (in Georgia an 80-90% kickback from the feds goes back to the sheriff or police department who conducted the seizure), is probable cause the property was obtained through illegal means, the same criteria used for getting a warrant. In some jurisdictions 80% of the cash seizures are not accompanied by any criminal charges which of course requires the much more difficult bar of beyond a reasonable doubt. Even HB 1 is still not tying a criminal conviction to the outcome of the property forfeiture but does elevate the state’s burden of proof to a showing of “clear and convincing evidence that seized property is subject to forfeiture”.

  7. Nonchalant says:

    Why should a law enforcement agency have a source of funding outside of an elected body? Mr. Durant is quite correct above. I have no issues with election of sherriffs. I do have trouble with anything that resembles a feudal fief.

    Would you allow the United States military to independently fund itself off of, say, oil in Iraq, if that money could be had? They’d wouldn’t have to deal with Congress as much. Can anyone see any potential issues with this setup? Any at all?

    I know…if financial independence is the goal, perhaps our sheriff departments can start running their own factories, like the PLA does in China. That way they could be totally independent of legislative-type checks. What could go wrong? The people love their sheriffs, after all.

    Those on their good side, that is.

      • Will Durant says:

        Agreed. But they should not be elected to seize property for the profit of their departments and in some cases for their own personal use. They are in an elected office where we allow them to literally confiscate property at the point of a gun with little accountability on what they do with the seizures or even how they conduct them.

  8. Dave Bearse says:

    I’ve written here on multiple occasions that the a GOP Gold Dome is for local control, except when it isn’t. Evidently this received foo much local level push back for even the imperial Dome.

    The Dome’s meddling in local Fulton County legislation, effected by a gerrymander where five House districts, 22, 25, 40, 45 and 95 have two or less precincts located in Fulton County that took deliberate effort given there are over 300 Fulton County precincts , is till a go since it only affects a metro Atlanta majority Democratic local government.

  9. john tyler says:

    The Sheriffs sure dont mind the assembly giving them one of the lushest retirements in Georgia. All while not giving two cents of care for their men working them.

    The Georgia General Assembly has allocated $2.00 of every fine collected and bond forfeited, which is at least $5.00, in any criminal or quasi-criminal case of violation of state law, including traffic laws, in which a sheriff or duly authorized deputy acts as sheriff to such court.

    The Georgia General Assembly has allocated $1.00 of each civil action including adoptions, charter, certiorari, name registrations, applications for change of name, and all other proceedings of a civil nature filed in the superior, state and magistrate courts in which the sheriff or duly authorized deputy acts as sheriff of such court.

    • john tyler says:

      Retirement at age 55. With only eight years of service, of which they can count military service.

      “Only after the completion of eight years of qualifying Sheriff’s service is prior service as a peace officer or military service creditable.”

      Monthly benefits shall be payable upon approval by the Board of Commissioners based on years of service claimed. As of January 1, 2013, monthly benefits are based on $136.10 per month, per year of service. The maximum monthly benefit is $4,083.00.

      The pension benefits may be increased in the amount of 3% per year without legislative approval, if benefit is actuarially sound.

      Deputies have to work for 15 years (7 more than the Sheriff) and only get $24.41 per month per year of service, roughly $110 less than the Sheriff.

  10. Will Durant says:

    Just a little more insight into HB 1 in hope of better education on the scope of the problem to counter the disinformation flowing from the Sheriffs Association:

    “Georgia has the worst civil forfeiture laws in the South and among the worst in the nation. Making matters worse, civil forfeiture laws create a perverse financial incentive for law enforcement agencies to abuse these laws because their agencies get to keep the cash and other assets that they seize. Near 100% percent of forfeited property goes to police and prosecutors’ budgets; the more property police seize the more money they get for bigger and better offices, cars and more.”

    “This is what has happened to countless people across Georgia, people like Michael Annan. A native of Ghana, Annan didn’t trust banks. Police in southeast Georgia seized his life savings of more than $43,000 when they pulled him over on Interstate 95 while Annan was driving home to Orlando in early 2007. Police used a drug dog to sniff his car but no drugs were found and no charges were ever filed against him. Annan eventually got his money back; but to do so he had to spend more than $12,000 on an attorney to fight the local police force.”

    The proposed legislation in HB 1 was not to outright deprive the Sheriff and police departments of the confiscated property only to make them more accountable for both proving the property to be ill gotten gains and where they spend it. They would at least face a requirement to prove that the seized property is indeed ill gotten gains and failure to report it’s disposition would deprive them of the money as there is no teeth in current law that requires them to do so.

    “…federal reports show 147 Georgia law enforcement agencies taking in more than $32 million in forfeiture revenue in 2011 through federal forfeiture procedures, making Georgia one of the most aggressive states in the nation for federal forfeiture. Of those 147 agencies, 122 have not yet filed a state forfeiture report, even though at least 51 have published legal notices indicating they are also pursuing state forfeitures. Many state reports that have been filed lack even basic details necessary for
    proper public oversight, such as what was taken and when, how much it was worth and what was done with the proceeds.”

    So at risk of belaboring the point to those of you who claim to be strict constitutionalists I urge you to let your legislator know that you are in favor of reform to Georgia’s civil forfeiture end around done on the seizure portion of “illegal search and seizure”.

  11. john tyler says:

    Annans car had the smell of drugs and the dog alerted on it. Massive amounts of money was found and the owner couldn’t show proof of where the money came from. It’s simply not common for people to carry large amounts of cash, unless they are drug dealers.

  12. john tyler says:

    Of course Georgia has a high seizure rate compared with the nation. How much drug money do you think flows through Montana or Nebraska?

  13. john tyler says:

    ” It is no accident that the forfeiture process is so convoluted that even an innocent bystander needs a lawyer and must wait months for a hearing to get property back after it has been wrongly seized.”

    Nothing in this law says it would decrease the need for a lawyer of the time it takes to get a trial/hearing. Lawyers never write laws that decrease profits for lawyers.

  14. Mike Dudgeon says:

    I was one of the “grousers” 🙂

    My support of HB 1 hinged on the fact we are rated one of the worst states in the nation on civil forfeiture laws with poor transparency and poor rights of our citizens in disputes. HB 1 fixed that but also as you said changed the money distribution procedure. But my frustration on lobbyists was not mostly around the sheriffs. It involved 3 other bills and Charlie with all due respect I was there and saw the lobbyists spread alot of untruths and half truths on some of those (again not necessarily HB 1).

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