Do sheriffs wield too much power?
Thursday, June 19, 2014 12:00 AM
There has been plenty of talk and, in actuality, some action with regard to restructuring government. At the state level, come 2018, voters will elect the governor and lieutenant governor as a team. They will run on the same ticket as opposed to being elected separately. Come November, voters will decide whether the state adjutant general ought to be appointed by the governor, with advice from the state Senate, and not elected. There are a host of other offices currently elected that perhaps should be appointed, and we anticipate more changes in that direction.
That said, does anyone else also now wonder if we need to reconsider another popular office in the state, that of the county sheriff, and how it might be improved upon? More than a handful of sheriffs, including some in and around the Lakelands, have fallen off their pinnacles in disgrace and corruption. This is not to condemn all sheriffs, not by any means, but the office of sheriff is an incredibly powerful one. And that power, apparently, often leads to corruption in office.
Take a look back at only a few recent cases that are evidence of that fact. Saluda County’s Jason Booth and Abbeville County’s Charles Goodwin abused their offices and had inmates perform various tasks for them personally. They entered guilty pleas, paid fines and avoided jail time.
Elsewhere, as reported by the Associated Press, the following cases involving South Carolina sheriffs arose:
• Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was charged with dozens of federal drug and racketeering charges in May 2010.
• Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker was found guilty earlier this year of giving away guns from his department without filing proper paperwork and allowing untrained people to act as deputies.
• Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson faces federal kickback charges, accused of creating fake police reports saying people had their identities stolen for a friend who ran a credit-repair business.
• Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon was charged with third-degree assault and battery after admitting he slapped a handcuffed man in the face after the man had led his deputies on a 120-mph chase in January 2012. The misdemeanor charge was eligible for pre-trial intervention and he remains in office.
• In Orangeburg County, officials sued the estate of Sheriff Larry Williams after his death by county officials, accusing him of taking more than $200,000 in public money and using it on personal expenses. Williams had died before his case could be prosecuted.
And then along comes this week’s bombshell news about the state’s longest-serving sheriff, James Metts, who is facing 10 charges of taking bribes. He is now the eighth sheriff to face criminal charges or be investigated in the past four years. That’s right. Four years.
Metts, 68, has been Lexington County’s sheriff since 1972, first elected to the office at the age of 25. In addition to charges of taking bribes to assist people who were detained because they were in the country illegally, Metts faces wire fraud and conspiracy charges. Gov. Nikki Haley removed Metts from office Tuesday, once the federal charges were made known.
Naturally, Metts’ attorney has proclaimed her client’s innocence. He is entitled to justice and a fair trial, just like any number of those he and his office arrested throughout his tenure in office. Perhaps he will survive the charges, and that does seem to be part of the problem we are witnessing of late. Those who are most expected to have the utmost respect for the law and to be the bastions who uphold the law not only too often fall short of that call, but also avoid the harshest of punishment when found guilty.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely? Yes, Lord Acton was correct in his assessment. At least the evidence shows that is more than an expression, it is all too often reflected in fact.
We don’t suggest county sheriffs be appointed rather than elected, but more and more mounting evidence suggests we need a better system of checks and balances to guard against their wielding so much power that they become the law breakers rather than the ones who uphold the law.