A growing number of sheriffs across the United States are voicing and acting out their opposition to restrictive measures imposed by their states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harsh lockdown measures enacted by governors have sparked the ire of a number of sheriffs who argue that the long list of restrictions goes against the Constitution.
These sheriffs broadly state that they won’t enforce many of the lockdown measures. Meanwhile, all 50 states have taken at least some action to partially reopen and lift restrictions, though the extent varies from state to state.
More than 60 sheriffs hailing from more than a dozen states have publicly opposed their governors’ restrictions, according to a May analysis conducted by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism organization.
Some local government officials told The Epoch Times the number is likely much higher and will grow as frustrations about the stalled economy increase. The project also acknowledged that “there are likely many more quietly declining to enforce them.”
In interviews, multiple sheriffs said that many of the orders restrict people to the point of violating their rights, particularly the First Amendment. Concerns about religious freedom have also been raised after states recently took to banning church gatherings, which also caught the attention of the White House.
Some in the law enforcement community, however, have said that the answer to this isn’t as clear cut as simply not enforcing such restrictions.
The First Amendment forbids Congress from restricting an individual’s religious activities while also guaranteeing freedom of expression and the right to assembly.
Constitutional experts told The Epoch Times previously that the restrictions are both “unlawful and inappropriate,” while others argued that governments have the discretion to undertake emergency measures in times of crisis.
Leonard Sipes, a former senior specialist for crime prevention at the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the owner and operator of CrimeinAmerica.net, said what’s clear is “that constitutionality is unclear during a pandemic.”
“Public health regulations can impose a lockdown … but the freedom to assemble, or the freedom of religion, or protections against an illegal search and seizure remain,” he told The Epoch Times.
Earlier this month, a sheriff in Washington state declared that he wouldn’t enforce the governor’s restrictions when it comes to public gatherings or businesses reopening.
Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has banned citizens from attending church and has kept firearms businesses closed while allowing marijuana shops to stay open.
“Sheriffs understand as elected top law enforcement officers that their job is to not only throw bad guys in jail, but that their primary duty is to protect the liberties and God-given constitutional rights of the citizens they work for,” Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer told The Epoch Times.
Songer said that some officials have been increasingly talking about tracking and monitoring individuals infected with COVID-19.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) on May 1 introduced a bill that would allocate $100 billion to organizations that could provide testing and contact tracing services through mobile health units or at people’s homes. Many have decried the invasive level of monitoring involved in the bill.
“It’s Nazism, in my opinion,” Songer said, referring to the tracking proposals.
Since making his stance public, Songer said he has received a largely positive response from his county, which has a population of around 22,000.
“There’s risk in life no matter what you do,” he said. “We do not give up our liberties just because the government says we need to do that. If I was worried about risk all the time, I wouldn’t go down the highway.”
For the thousands of sheriffs continuing to enforce lockdown restrictions, Songer said he had a simple message for them.
“I would request each of them to make an independent decision,” he said. “But my request is for them to live up to the oath of the office they took.”
There have been 24 confirmed cases of the CCP virus in Klickitat County, according to May 27 government data. Businesses in Washington that violate Inslee’s restrictions can now also be fined or cited under emergency rules filed on May 26 by the state Department of Labor & Industries.
The state of affairs within the law enforcement community is complex, according to Sean McGowan, executive director of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which has more than 60,000 members.
“I cannot make a blanket statement about the situation, since it is evolving and changing every day,” he told The Epoch Times via email. “Officers are duty-bound to follow legal orders from their command, and they all have also taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.”
Amid the current conditions, any conflict that might arise would be “handled by our organization on a confidential case-by-case basis,” McGowan said.
A Virginia sheriff known for his strong support of the Second Amendment during the state’s battle over gun control earlier this year has also added his voice to the movement, though he noted his stance is more in the middle compared to some of the other hard-line sheriffs.
Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins told The Epoch Times he initially said nothing on the lockdown measures in the early weeks, as he felt it was a time to pull together and support government officials heading into unknown territory.
A few weeks ago, however, his views changed when he saw lockdown measures infringing on people’s rights. He then publicly announced he wouldn’t enforce Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s restrictions.
“The governor does have the right to enact regulations during a state of emergency and I get that, but the Constitution doesn’t go away just because of that,” Jenkins said. “We won’t be used to enforce an edict or regulation by a governor, health director, or anyone else.
“If we don’t stand up and enforce that, based on constitutional grounds, who else will?”
“What is vital to a person’s life or well-being?” Jenkins asked, discussing whether the disease is a great enough risk that we’re willing to trample on the First Amendment our country was founded on. “They could easily argue that there’s a bigger risk to get hit by a car.”
Jenkins spoke passionately about religious freedom, stating, “It is not our place to step in and intervene in their worship.”
After making his stance public, Jenkins said the response from residents in his county has been almost an even split among partisan lines from those not wanting to reopen, and those who do. He said that it has caused “a great divide in our community.”
In Culpeper county, there have been a total of 645 confirmed cases of the virus and five deaths, according to May 27 data. The county has a total population of 52,605.
At the end of the day, Jenkins said, he personally agrees with much of what has been done to protect their communities from the spread of the virus, but it simply is not his place serving in the office of the sheriff to allow the Constitution to be violated through his enforcement.
Behind the Movement
When lockdown restrictions started across the country, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) sent out a proclamation to thousands of sheriffs across the nation, advising them to honor their oath to the Constitution and to the people of their counties.
A spokesperson with the association told The Epoch Times that many of the sheriffs pushing back against their governors’ orders “are either members of the CSPOA or are acting on the encouragement of the CSPOA.”
Former Arizona sheriff and founder of CSPOA Richard Mack told The Epoch Times that under the current circumstances, he believes that citizens haven’t broken the law and that “they have only tried to maintain their business and their liberties as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.” He said the lockdown orders haven’t passed “through any state legislature.”
“For any governor to appoint themselves as dictator over the state, to destroy people’s businesses, to destroy churches, and to arrest people going to church or arrest ministers is an absolute outrage,” he said. “I’m absolutely petrified as to what’s going on here, all in the name of taking care of people.”
Mack said the association has been tremendously busy and more sheriffs are joining the movement every day, though he didn’t have an exact number.
“We can’t keep track of all of them,” he said.
While some state laws allow governors to declare a state of emergency, that only allows for the opening of certain funds, and nothing else, he said.
“I would ask every police officer in this country, ‘Where did you get any authority to violate the First Amendment?'” he said. “If you violate an oath, you’ve committed perjury, and that is a crime in and of itself.”
Across the United States, there have been a total of 1,733,904 confirmed cases of the virus and 101,140 attributed deaths, according to May 27 data. Mack wondered why the country isn’t shutting down alcohol and smoking due to the death rates from those being much higher than the current number of virus fatalities.
“We don’t even make smoking against the law,” he said. “I don’t understand the inconsistency.”
Mack acknowledged that the virus is a “real threat,” but said Americans can work together to solve the problem “without destroying our country and our Constitution.”
He said people shouldn’t be arrested for wearing or not wearing a mask or going to church. “If people are conducting their lives according to their own conscience, so be it. That’s America, and that’s called individual liberty.”