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The power of sheriffs rooted in U.S. history

by Ed Lyon

Three of the most recognizable and well-known facets of U.S. society originated in England: the language, the writ of habeas corpus and the office of sheriff.

The first sheriff in the colonial United States was elected in Northampton County, Virginia.

There is a popularly elected sheriff in almost all U.S. counties, save for Connecticut state, which has done away with them. Most sheriffs today are white males and are native to the county they serve.

Most state constitutions provide for a sheriff’s office. Only a governor or voter recall election can remove one from office. They average sheriff stays 24 years in office. According to Professor Casey LaFrance, “Once you become the sheriff, you’re likely to remain the sheriff until you retire or die.” All these factors work to afford a sheriff broad discretion over countywide law enforcement—and great latitude concerning the extent of laws to be enforced.

In 1970s California, a different view of the office arose. Constitutional sheriffing was the brainchild of William Potter Gale, a former aide to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. Author Daniel Levites writes of Gale in his book, The Terrorist Next Door, noting he was an adherent to the Christian Identity faith. He further explains Gale’s belief that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired and places white people over Jews and minorities.

Gale’s solution to save the United States was to recognize counties as the only legitimate seat of power and a county’s sheriff “the only legal law enforcement officer” in the nation. The sheriff, his deputies and accepted volunteers would constitute a legal group called “Posse Comitatus,” commonly referred to as the sheriff’s posse.

By the 1980s, his concept grew into a movement in the Midwest.

Posses arose in half the country, some forming “common law” grand juries to indict officials believed to be acting contrary to their oath of office.

A posse assaulted an Internal Revenue Service agent in Wisconsin, attempted to arrest a police officer in Idaho and almost caused a shootout in California.

The movement waned after two U.S. Marshals died trying to arrest posse member Gordon Kahl in North Dakota in 1983. He was later killed in another gunfight in Arkansas, followed by Gale’s death in 1988.

The sheriff supremacy concept nonetheless survived.

In March 2013, Liberty County, Florida, sheriff’s deputy Jody Hoagland arrested Floyd Parrish for carrying a concealed handgun. Shortly after Parrish was booked into jail, Sheriff Nick Finch arrived. After speaking with Parrish, Finch told him, “Fortunately for you, young man, I’m a believer in the Second Amendment.”

He released Parrish, and even some Liberty County people refer to it as being “unarrested.”

Hoagland said this “ate away at me.”After finding a firefighter’s job, he informed an inspector at the state level Florida Department of Law Enforcement (“FDLE”). He stated in writing that Parrish’s arrest file was missing and the arrest’s logbook entry had been whited out.

FDLE agents charged Finch with felony official misconduct and misdemeanor falsification of public records.  The governor suspended Finch from office.

Former Sheriff Richard Mack, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (“CSPOA”), contacted Finch, offering assistance. Mack had won a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging a section of the Brady Bill gun control law and authored the book The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope. Mack succeeded in alerting the conservative media to Finch’s legal problems.

At Finch’s trial, he admitted to the “unarrest” and said he believed he had the discretion to decide which laws to enforce. The jury acquitted him on both counts. He was reinstated to office, sued the county and won $160,000 in attorney fees. He was defeated in the 2016 election. The CSPOA, nevertheless, named him Sheriff of the Year in 2014, and he remains a noteworthy standard to the still-present constitutional sheriff movement.


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