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Can a Sheriff Choose Not to Enforce Certain Laws?

On Behalf of | Mar 6, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Any time you encounter law enforcement, there’s a chance you could be meeting a sheriff. A sheriff, unlike regular police officers who often serve within city limits, is typically an elected official who serves to keep the peace and enforce criminal laws within a county. They often have the duty to make arrests, manage and operate county jails, serve warrants and civil papers, regulate bail bondsmen, state and local law enforcement and provide many other services – though their duties vary from state to state and county to county.

In other words, a sheriff holds a lot of power. Sheriffs hold so much power that, if they’re told to regulate certain laws, they may choose not to enforce them. In fact, it’s not uncommon for sheriffs to refuse to enforce certain laws. Here’s what you should know.

A history of enforcement refusal

Because state and local laws are always changing, sometimes not in favor of the public, it’s up to sheriff to decide which laws should be enforced by officers working under them on a daily basis. Oftentimes, sheriffs state that they are responsible for determining if the interpretation of a law is in violation of the state or federal constitution. Thus, if so, they may publicly refuse to enforce these laws under the condition that a court hasn’t said otherwise.

In one case, regarding immigration enforcement in California and North Carolina, sheriffs refused to support federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who were tasked with organizing immigration raids. The sheriffs believed, by helping ICE conduct their raids and providing them with information about the immigrant and mixed-status communities, that they were hurting public trust in their office. 

Federal laws state that marijuana is illegal, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these laws will be enforced. Many states, for example, have legalized medical marijuana and/or recreational marijuana. As such, sheriffs don’t face any legal difficulties by not enforcing federal laws and, instead, abiding by competing state laws. 

It’s evident that sheriffs have a lot of control over how the law is enforced. However, power often goes to peoples’ heads. If you believe a sheriff violated your rights, you may need to know your legal options.