Bill aims to restore arrest, investigative powers to Pa. sheriffs, deputies
Ambiguity continues to cloud lower courts and law enforcement investigations statewide over the authority of sheriffs and their deputies
By Natasha Lindstrom
GREENSBURG, Pa. — The pair of Bradford County sheriff's deputies thought they had closed the case.
While visiting a mobile home in Troy to question a woman about a methamphetamine ring, deputies Christopher Burgert and David Hart smelled ammonia and ether coming from a barn on the property, court records show . The woman wasn't home, but one of them recognized Cory Dobbins as he ran off into the woods.
The deputies learned from a state trooper that the property had a history of drug-related busts. They returned with a search warrant. Inside the barn, they found equipment consistent with a meth lab — propane tanks, plastic tubing, rubber gloves, salt and milk jugs filled with white sludge.
A jury convicted Dobbins of conspiracy to manufacture and sell methamphetamine in 2004. He was sentenced to four to 23 years in prison.
In 2007, a split Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Dobbins' conviction and suppressed the evidence collected by the deputies that had been used to prosecute him.
On a 3-2 vote, the state's highest court determined the investigation was illegal — not because of how it was done, but because of who did it.
Sheriff's deputies lack the independent investigative authority of local municipal police and had no right to investigate the case, the court found. The case marked at least the 15th time the issue had come before the high court.
Sheriff's powers debated
More than a decade later, ambiguity continues to cloud lower courts and law enforcement investigations statewide over the authority of sheriffs and their deputies, with judges, attorneys and local police harboring mixed opinions over the limitations of what sheriffs can do.
The state House is set to take up a bill next month that seeks to clarify and expand the powers of sheriff's deputies.
House Bill 466 , sponsored by Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver County, would give explicit authority for sheriffs and sheriff's deputies who complete the same type of training as municipal police officers to investigate and make arrests without warrants for crimes including but not limited to vehicle and drug offenses they encounter while performing their regular duties.
“The courts are asking for clarity; they're asking for definitions,” Marshall, of Big Beaver, told the Tribune-Review. “We're not trying to replace any state troopers or municipal police. We're just trying to assist (them) with other law enforcement that has similar training.”
Butler County Sheriff Michael T. Slupe has argued that many sheriff's departments already have equal and sometimes better resources , weapons and physical training than local police.
Marshall pointed out that many sheriff's deputies are retired police or split their time between shifts as a sheriff's deputy and a police officer.
“There may not be additional costs to counties to have this enacted,” Marshall said, “and there's potential it even could reduce costs if detectives aren't called out every time a sheriff's department sees laws being broken or illegal activity.”
Another layer of safety
In Western Pennsylvania, only the Allegheny County Sheriff's Department has full Act 120 policing powers, and it would continue to have more authority to patrol and investigate than sheriffs under Marshall's bill.
Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen said he's “absolutely” supportive of the bill as a means to improve public safety.
“The sheriffs are out in the streets, and I think it creates another layer of public safety for the communities,” Mullen said. “They still won't have the full powers we have; the difference is that they would have the ability to investigate.”
Existing law allows for sheriff's deputies to make arrests regarding certain illegal activity they come across in “open view.” They're unable to investigate reports of crimes they do not encounter or witness, and instead must call in municipal or state police to investigate.
“If there's a burglary or something, they can't go after it. They have to call in help,” Mullen said. “The state police may have to come in, and in the more rural areas they may have to come 25 to 30 miles.”
Armstrong County Sheriff Bill Rupert said that if it becomes law, H.B. 466 wouldn't significantly change the daily schedules of him and his eight full-time deputies. Like most sheriff's offices, they have limited budgets and spend the bulk of their time serving court documents and transporting inmates.
“Myself and my deputies are out on the street every day anyhow. It's a positive for the community,” Rupert said. “It just puts that many more people out there on the streets that can combat the drug problems and the different problems that we have.
“Once the House Bill 466 powers pass, we could continue on with the prosecution of whatever we find or whatever we see when we go into a place to, say, serve a search warrant.”
The bill could help expedite investigations and save resources for other public safety efforts in cash-strapped municipalities, as well as improve the credibility and usefulness of information collected by sheriff's deputies, Mullen said.
“When people give you information, even from another police officer, you're kind of leery,” he said. “You're going to put it on the back burner because it's not your information.”
Police unions, Democrats opposed
The proposed legislation narrowly made it out of the House State Government Committee on Tuesday, on a 15-11, party-line vote. All 11 minority Democratic committee members voted against it.
Marshall, however, expects to pick up at least half a dozen or more Democratic votes on the House floor. He's pitched at least four similar bills over the past 10 years. Previous bills have died in attempts to make it to the House floor through the House Judiciary Committee.
“We're closer than we have been to passing this in a dozen years,” Marshall said. “I don't think it's a significant, landmark bill. I think it's just the beginning of just restoring some of the abilities of the sheriff's departments that they had before.”
While the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association is among the bill's biggest proponents, H.B. 466 has drawn oppositio n from the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, state troopers union and state District Attorneys Association.
The County Commissioners Association seemed pleased with the amended version that cleared the committee, according to Marshall.
“I wish I had the troopers and FOP supporting it,” Marshall said. “I've talked to several deputies that are really unhappy that this doesn't have support from the FOP ... because many deputies are municipal police on one shift and then sheriff's deputies on another shift, and the FOP supports them when they're municipal but not when they're wearing another badge.
The 2007 case overturning Dobbins' conviction prompted former Gov. Tom Corbett to remove sheriff's deputies from countywide drug task forces.
Citing a lack of legislative clarity on the definition of a sheriff, the 3-2 opinion had reaffirmed prior rulings saying that sheriffs can make arrests only for breaches of the peace and felonies committed in their presence — an authority “no different than a private citizen.”
Even under H.B. 466, Marshall said he'd still like to see sheriff's deputies involving Act 120 law enforcement agencies in major investigations.
“In the cases of meth labs and other significant drug activity, I would hope that the sheriff's deputies would contact state police to assist,” Marshall said.
©2018 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)