Local police chiefs and sheriffs typically swear to enforce the laws of their state. But a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association is intent on strictly enforcing their view of the U.S. Constitution and, according to a long newpiece by the Center for Public Integrity, “its ambition is to encourage law enforcement officers to defy laws they decide themselves are illegal.” In essence, they are troubled by the overreach of the federal government in matters concerning guns, taxes and land management, and founder Richard Mack has described the federals as “the greatest threat we face today,” and his association as “the army to set our nation free.”
In an interview with Julia Harte and former Post reporter R. Jeffrey Smith, Mack said he had enlisted “several hundred” of the more than 3,000 sheriffs around the country as members of the CSPOA, and that hundreds more are sympathetic. At the association’s 2014 convention, dozens of sheriffs signed a declaration that they would not tolerate any federal agent who attempted to register firearms, arrest someone or seize property in their counties without their consent.
Mack struck a blow for states’ rights in the 1990s as a sheriff from Graham County, Arizona, when he and a sheriff from Montana challenged the Brady Bill’s interim requirement that local law enforcement agencies perform background checks on gun buyers. The Supreme Court ruled in Mack’s favor, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing the opinion affirming the states’ sovereignty under the 10th Amendment and that the federal government could not enlist the local police in 50 states to do its bidding. The decision did not have lasting impact because a national database was put in place to enable gun dealers to run the checks themselves, removing local law enforcement from the process.
But Mack became popular in conservative circles and he launched the CSPOA in 2011. At a recent training for local police, the CPI reported, Mack declared that “gun control is against the law” and that his goal was to sign up about one-fourth of the nation’s sheriffs to join the association. “And then everybody in this country has at least two or three places in each state where they can go for refuge,” Mack said, “find a true constitutional sheriff who’ll tell the federal government, ‘You’re not going to abuse citizens anymore.’”
What bothers some people about statements like that is the appearance that a local law enforcement official is substituting his or her legal judgment for that of a state or federal legislature. So I called Mack to ask him about his views and he willingly expounded on them, though he was not happy with the CPI article and even though The Post is not highly regarded in some conservative circles.
Mack’s philosophy is largely reinforced by his successful challenge to the Brady Bill, in which “we went through a lawful process to show the government is out of control, to force sheriffs to comply.” He said U.S. District Judge John Roll, who was killed in the attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in 2011, neatly summed up every sheriff’s dilemma: “He said I was forced to choose between obeying the law or keeping my oath of office. He described my problem in one sentence.”
Certain that any gun regulation violates the Second Amendment, Mack said “the government was forcing me to participate in a gun control scheme that I knew was unconstitutional. When all law enforcement is forced into that position by state or federal legislators, which one do we side with? And I believe there is a proper way to conduct oneself in knowing the difference between enforcing stupid laws and enforcing the principles of the Constitution.”
He compared the situation to that of officers in Alabama who enforced segregation laws against Rosa Parks, or military officers of Nazi Germany who committed genocide. “The cop who arrested Rosa Parks said,” according to Mack, “‘The law is the law.’ The officers at Nuremberg said the same thing, ‘We were just following orders.’ Well the court determined that following orders when you’re committing a crime, or genocide, doesn’t cut it. We say the same thing. Do not say, ‘I’m just following orders.’ Do what’s right. We stand for people being abused. I don’t care if it’s gun rights, land rights, Amish rights, the federal government should not get a free pass and we should stand against their abuses.”
Mack was adamant that “I have never advocated violence. I spent 20 years in law enforcement without ever beating up anybody.” But “when you have no place else to go, when all the courts are against you, all the legislators are against you, where else do you go? I believe to the local county sheriff…and if that means standing against the federal government, then so damn be it.”
Some like-minded sheriffs have turned up at the two recent standoffs between the federal government and local ranchers, at the Bundy ranch in Nevada and then on behalf of the Hammond family ranch at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, both times after the federal government tried to exercise control over public land adjacent to the two ranches. “Most Americans think that federal authority is ever most powerful and can usurp any governing entity below it,” Mack writes on the CSPOA website. “Though somewhat logical, that is simply a fallacy when one would consult the constitution. It is not the job of the federal government to interpose between you and the local law, it is your local government that will interpose.” Dozens of sheriffs, mostly from western states, sent letters to the White House in 2013 saying they would not enforce federal gun laws, including Douglas County, Ore., Sheriff John Hamlin. Hamlin’s view were later scrutinized after a mass killing in his county last October at Umpqua Community College.
In February, Mack’s group launched a campaign called “Vet Your Sheriff,” with a “Sheriff Survey” to be given to local sheriffs to see where they stand on the freedom spectrum. “Should the Federal Government,” asks Question 4, “come into your county and serve warrants and make arrests without informing you first of their intentions?” Question 9 asks, “According to the principles of our Constitutional Republic, who is responsible for keeping the Federal Government in check?”
I asked a local sheriff if he wanted to take the survey, but he declined. I asked the National Sheriffs Association, with 20,000 members, for their thoughts on the CSPOA, and they also declined. The deputy executive director, John Thompson, told the CPI that his association doesn’t take a position on how individual sheriffs carry out their duties. There are 3,080 sheriffs in 47 states, according to the association, though not all oversee full law enforcement agencies, with some primarily handling county jail oversight.
“It’s terrifying to me,” said Justin Nix, a criminology professor at the University of Louisville who specializes in police legitimacy and procedural fairness. “It’s not up to the police to decide what the law is going to be. They’re sworn to uphold the law. It’s not up to them to pick and choose.” Nix pointed out that officers use discretion all the time in deciding whether to charge someone with a crime. “But to be on the record, that you don’t want officers enforcing laws, that is pretty bold.”
Mack spoke in southwest Virginia earlier this month at a citizens meeting where he shared the bill with Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Van Cleave joked, “What a horrible thing it is, asking the sheriff to honor the Constitution.” He said that both state and federal laws have been passed which violate the Constitution, and “if we ignore them, then the government can do whatever they want. It’s chaos out there, without somebody putting boundaries in and honoring that those boundaries mean something.”