Editorial: Sheriffs don't get to pick laws they will enforce

Published: Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

County sheriffs in California take oaths promising to uphold and defend the laws and constitutions of California and the United States.

But a growing group of sheriffs in this state and in other states has signed on to tenets of a deeply misguided and ill-informed organization whose reckless rhetoric directly challenges federal and state laws.

So far, members affiliated with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association have merely rattled sabers, and have not overtly defied duly adopted laws. But they are not shy about expressing disdain for state and federal regulations. In so doing, these law enforcement officials foster contempt for the laws they promise to uphold.

As elected law enforcement officers, sheriffs have bully pulpits. By pushing rhetoric that encourages law enforcement officers to neglect state laws, these self-proclaimed "constitutional sheriffs" abuse their position in favor of ideology. Their stated intent is to pick and choose which laws to enforce. Among the laws they see as unworthy are gun-control measures.

This is relevant in California, where the Legislature has imposed tough gun-control measures, and is contemplating several measures this year to further limit access to certain types of firearms, and to restrict gun ownership by people who have been convicted of some misdemeanors, or have histories of mental illness.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association advocates a "line in the sand" approach to gun control, claiming a sheriff's responsibility is to reject enforcement of gun-control measures.

Three California sheriffs – Dean Wilson of Del Norte County, John D'Agostini of El Dorado County and Jon Lopey of Siskiyou County – are part of the organization's leadership.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association lists 21 other sheriffs from California who have taken stands against any new federal gun-control measures. The 21 include Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian S. Parkinson.

Richard Mack founded the organization. Mack served two terms as sheriff in Graham County, Ariz., which has a population of 37,000, and ran for a congressional seat twice and lost by wide margins.

Mack is fond of tea party catch phrases, promising in his mission statement to "protect us from tyranny" and "take our country back."

The organization says on its website that its aim is to recruit law enforcement officers across the nation to "issue our new Declaration to the Federal Government regarding the abuses that we will no longer tolerate or accept. Said declaration will be enforced by our Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers. In short, the CSPOA will be the army to set our nation free."

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association purports to act in the name of the U.S. Constitution. Certainly, its extremist rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment. But this tripe, coming from men and women who carry guns, and wear badges and uniforms, could encourage its own brand of lawlessness.

The people of California empower sheriffs to enforce state laws, and expect them to do their jobs. Although law enforcement officers do have discretion, they don't have the right to pick and choose which laws to enforce based on their ideology and overestimation of their status.

D'Agostini, as part of this group's leadership, is of special concern. He has stripped the U.S. Forest Service of authority for enforcing state law within his county, and has been spending far too much time organizing against federal habitat protections for amphibians. His county has serious crime issues that demand his attention. Voters should remember how he has been spending his time when he runs for re-election.

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