The word sheriff is derived from the two words - "shire"
meaning county, and "reeve" meaning an ancient English officer of
Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066 the sheriff gradually became
the principal officer of a county. Appointment to the office was made by
the King and obviously the sheriff was the King's man. Principally the
sheriff's duties were the collection of the King's taxes, acting as the King's
fiscal officer and keeping the King's peace.
Several references are made to sheriffs in the Magna Carta which King John of
England was forced to sign on June 15, 1215.
In what became the United States, counties were finally organized in Virginia
in 1634. When they were, the sheriff was their head. It was
specifically provided by the legislative body of the colony then that the
sheriff should have as near as possible the powers the duties of a sheriff of
the English shires. Appointment of sheriffs were made by the
Records in the Michigan archives state that the Ordinance of 1787 established
the Northwest Territory of which Michigan was a part and defined the procedure
for obtaining statehood. Detroit became a part of the administrative
district of Hesse under British civil government.
A court of common pleas, county lieutenant, Sheriff and justices of the peace
were established in each district.
Evidently 1787 was the first time the office of Sheriff was established in
Michigan; however, the State Library cannot locate the name of the Sheriff.*
Wayne County was the first county to be organized in Michigan having a
county Sheriff. The Tenth Territorial Papers covering the years 1805-1820
reveal that Gov. Lewis Cass on November 21, 1815, appointed James H. Audrain the
Sheriff of Wayne County and constable of the district of Erie.
In this country with the development of the office, the outstanding
difference is that the Sheriff became an elected official as provided for in
most state constitutions. It should be noted that a sheriff is the only
elected peace officer in each county, which results in local control of police
activities by the people rather than by the state.
The Michigan Constitution of 1963 provides for the election of a sheriff in
each of the 83 counties in Michigan.1 Thus, as an elected constitutional police officer, the sheriff is the chief law
enforcement officer in each county.
His responsibilities cover the entire spectrum of law enforcement - criminal
investigations, traffic patrol and accidents, service of all legal processes of
the courts, operation of the county jail, marine and snowmobile safety,
education and enforcement and total police service on a 24-hour basis. His
primary duty is to provide complete police services to the unincorporated areas
of the county. However, he maintains full police jurisdiction in all
municipalities, townships and villages. All sheriffs have full
police authority in any county in Michigan when requested to assist by another
Unfortunately, the detailing of the exact duties of a sheriff, as provided
over the years by the legislature, are scattered throughout the numerous volumes
of the recorded statutes of Michigan. In addition, many of the duties and
responsibilities of a sheriff are rooted in the common law, or case law, which
may necessitate lengthy research to establish authority or a principle.
An interesting phenomenon exists today in Michigan county government.
There is no executive head. All other levels of government provide for one
individual, such as a president, governor, supervisor, mayor, etc., who is the
chief administrative officer. Historically, both in England and in this
county, the sheriff was the executive head of the county. Thomas
Jefferson, in his work called "The Value of Constitutions", wrote
"the office of sheriff is the most important of all the executive offices
of the country."
Black's Law Dictionary defines a sheriff as "The chief executive and
administrative officer of a county, being chosen by popular election."
More or less by default the executive duties of county government have been
assumed by the board of commissioners and, more specifically, the chairman of
the board which, of course, violates the separation of powers doctrine.
The county board of commissioners is empowered to set and approve the
sheriff's budget, but otherwise has little or no authority over the sheriff or
Few people realize the extent of the duties and responsibilities of a
sheriff. Because of nearly autonomous status a sheriff may find himself
immersed in a host of activities, all requiring a semblance of skill and
Basically a sheriff department has two essential functions - police work and
jail operation - both of which are 24 hour a day, seven days a week operations.
The modern-day sheriff is confronted more and more with administrative problems
requiring expertise not only in policing activities but business management as
well. Numerous reports are required by state and federal agencies.
Accounting procedures must reflect state guidelines.
New legislation and court decisions are constantly impacting upon the
criminal justice system. For example, decriminalization of alcohol use,
civil rights, Miranda warnings, changes in the mental health code, changes in
the juvenile code and many others. All of these affect the operations of a
sheriff department. All are fairly recent developments or a subject
of increased activity.
* April 30, 1789 - George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of
the United States of America.
1. Article VII, Sec. 4