Marshal Matt Dillon to the rescue
Ask Judge Smith
By Layne Smith
Special to the Outlook
Q: Judge Smith, what is the difference between the police and the sheriff, and what is their authority for making arrests? Thank you, Charles.
A: Charles, police officers are employed by city governments, and sheriffs and their deputies are employed by county governments. So, police officers serve and protect people and property within their cities, and sheriffs and their deputies serve and protect people and property within their counties.
Let’s apply that to the City of Tallahassee and Leon County. The capital city lies entirely within the county but does not encompass the whole county. As a general rule, our local police officers’ jurisdiction is confined to the city limits and they do not police the unincorporated areas of the county. However, our sheriff’s jurisdiction covers the entire county, which includes the City of Tallahassee. As a result, the jurisdictions of the Tallahassee Police Department and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office overlap within the city limits.
There are other noteworthy differences between the two. The city hires its chief of police, who answers directly to the city manager and/or to our elected city officials. In contrast, the sheriff is an independently elected constitutional officer who answers directly to the voters. The Sheriff operates the county jail and provides security for both county courthouses.
Charles, you also asked about the source of a law enforcement officer’s authority to make arrests. The answer is the law.
Remember the cowboy movies and western series you watched as a kid. Outlaws did whatever they wanted without regard to others. They controlled the roads, towns and outposts until U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City rode in and saved the day. In an effort to combat lawlessness, and to protect us from criminals, government provides security through law enforcement.
Think of government as a social contract. People want and need protection from outlaws. In response, our elected officials at the federal, state and local levels have enacted laws authorizing government to keep the peace by exercising “police power,” which includes making lawful arrests. In exchange, each one of us is subject to the law and expected to follow the law. Now, let’s discuss the usual scenarios in which law enforcement officers make arrests.
Law enforcement officers make “on-view arrests” if they observe someone commit a crime or when, during the course of an on-the-scene investigation, they determine there is “probable cause” that the arrestee committed a crime. An “on-view arrest” may also occur during the execution of a search warrant.
As part of their jobs, law enforcement officers encounter people they arrest because of unresolved arrest warrants. When that happens, a judge has already found “probable cause” for the arrest and issued the warrant. These warrants may be local, from another county or state, or from the federal government.
If someone violates the conditions of their probation, they are subject to arrest. Likewise, someone may be arrested if they violate the terms of their pre-trial release. For example, the court will order a defendant charged with a domestic battery to have no further contact with the victim. If the defendant violates the no contact order, he will be re-arrested. Courts also issue bench warrants for the arrest of criminal defendants who fail to appear at scheduled and noticed hearings, jury selections and/or trials.
Charles, I hope this answered your questions.
Email questions about civics or law to email@example.com. Let’s talk again in two weeks.
J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who handles a wide variety of criminal and civil cases. He often speaks and writes about civics, the law, our legal system, and the administration of justice.