WALLA WALLA, Washington (PNN) - April 25, 2020 - Sheriffs are given power by voters, and that is where their loyalty should lie. The sheriffs of Snohomish, Okanogan and Walla Walla counties in Washington state take the declared pandemic seriously, but stop short of enforcing actions that violate the constitutional rights of their citizens.
Most law-enforcement officers do not want to arrest people who are trying to earn an honest living and trying to put food on the table for their families. Without a court order, the governor has no authority over sheriffs or their deputies. Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney posted a letter on Facebook stating, “We have the right to peaceably assemble. We have the right to keep and bear arms. We have the right to attend church service of any denomination. The impacts of COVID 19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights.”
To date, three county sheriffs in Washington State broke ranks and announced they will not enforce some of Governor Inslee’s executive orders relating to his several, and increasingly frequent lockdown orders – proclaimed under the auspices of state of emergency declarations to the COVID-19 situation. The dominant subject of dissent among these law enforcement officials centers around what are regarded as unconstitutional intrusions by the governor enacted against the citizens of their respective counties and the inconsistency of regulations applied unequally by the state.
The time has come for the governor to put his ego aside. If he chooses to adversarily engage these sheriffs and others who will come to join them he will lose in the courts of public opinion of these various counties.
The sheriff is not generally an appointed position. Sheriffs serve both the civil process and criminal departments, act as agents of the district and superior courts and in most cases maintain the county jails. They are also tasked by statute with serving public health directives and orders of the county health department. They are not subordinate to the purview of the office of the governor.
As elected officials, their realm is largely separated from that of the county commissioners. They are the only elected general authority law enforcement officers of the state, and are generally answerable to the voters of their county. The governor may direct the State Patrol, the Washington State Guard, and the Washington National Guard, but he does not control the thirty-nine sheriffs.
Sheriffs command a great amount of clout and respect among the ordinary citizens of their counties. The understanding is that the sheriff serves them; not the governor, not the county commissioners, but the citizens themselves. While the deputies and city officers might be somewhat faceless agents of their agencies, the sheriff tends to be part of their personal social arenas. From a political perspective, a sheriff can be a very difficult opponent if chosen to contend with and certainly not one to dismiss without consequence.
The seeds for this type of dissent by some Eastern Washington sheriffs began last year with the passing of I-1639, which greatly restricted firearms rights in the state. About a dozen or more sheriffs, mostly in rural counties, refused to enforce the restrictions against the people, citing that the provisions violated both the federal and state constitutional right to bear arms. We are beginning to see an analogue with this in today’s declarations of emergency. It is perceived by the dissent as an unjust action against law abiding citizens, likely unconstitutional, and they are not going to be coerced into enforcing this.
These sheriffs think that what has been mandated upon them is untenable, and/or detrimental to themselves, their jobs, or their employers. Their patience is wearing thin. If the governor continues to restrict all Washingtonians the perceived problem will transfer from that of the COVID-19 virus directly to the politician himself who caused nearly all of this economic fallout by proclamation: Governor Jay Inslee. It will not be the local county sheriff who gets the blame for this mess.