Survey: Hundreds of County Sheriffs Think Their Authority Supersedes Federal Law

A newly released survey finds that hundreds of county sheriffs believe their power as law enforcement overseers supersedes state and federal laws in an alarming show of right-wing radicalization of law enforcement across the U.S.

In a survey of over 500 sheriffs conducted by The Marshall Project and political scientists Emily Farris and Mirya Holman, nearly half of respondents, or over 200 sheriffs, agreed with the statement that “The sheriff’s authority supersedes the federal or state government in my county.” Even more sheriffs, about 71 percent, agreed with the statement that they are willing to interject when they do not personally support a state or federal law.

The survey is a show of the rise of “constitutional sheriffs,” or people who believe that they are a singularly powerful legal authority who outrank federal or state officials within county borders. In modern years, constitutional sheriffs have thrown their efforts behind the movement to overturn the 2020 election results; in some places, constitutional sheriffs are on the ballot this election.

The movement’s organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, boasts hundreds of dues-paying sheriffs and has thousands of other members and sympathizers, including figures like Donald Trump-pardoned Joe Arpaio, a former county sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, who committed a long list of inhumane and potentially criminal actions during his time in office.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the group as extremist, with roots in white supremacy and ties to far right groups like the Oath Keepers — in fact, the group’s founder, Richard Mack, was once a board member of the far right militia.

The growth of the constitutional sheriff movement is also representative of the growth of far right ideology among sheriffs; an alarming 11 percent of respondents said that they personally support the group, while about a quarter of respondents said they had never heard of them.

Data shows that values of the constitutional sheriff movement are dangerous; a 2019 study found, for instance, that constitutional sheriffs are 50 percent more likely to have violent encounters with their constituents and federal Bureau of Land Management employees.

At the same time, Mack has tied the constitutional sheriff movement to the rise of far right ideology within the mainstream Republican Party. In past years, for instance, constitutional sheriffs found popularity in refusing to comply with gun control laws put in place by Nevada lawmakers in response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, comparing the state government to Nazi Germany.

“A lot of [Constitutional sheriff] talking points are squarely among the center of the Republican party now,” Jessica Pishko, a former University of South Carolina researcher and author of an upcoming book on sheriffs, told USA Today.

Recently, the group has taken hold among two mainstream far right movements. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of sheriffs objected to mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

Now, constitutional sheriffs have tied themselves to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and destabilize future elections in the U.S. — conservative activists have in fact been seeking out such sheriffs to help them in the cause. Sympathetic sheriffs, who are likely to identify with Republican sentiments about the supposed tyranny of the federal government, can bring the support of armed law enforcement to the cause in a time when right-wing vigilantes are intimidating voters at the polls.

The movements indeed have parallels; just as election deniers are seeking positions that could have power over election administration, constitutional sheriffs are in elected positions in which they are willing to violate the very laws they’re supposed to enforce.