The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Sheriff is both a political and a legal office held under English common law, Scots law or American common law, or the person who holds such office.


Modern usage

United States

In the United States a sheriff is generally the highest elected law-enforcement officer of a county. The political election of a person to serve as a police leader is a uniquely American tradition. All law-enforcement officers working for the agency headed by a sheriff are called sheriff's deputies or deputy sheriffs and are so called because they are deputized by the sheriff to perform the same duties as him or her. They may be subdivided into general deputies and special deputies .

In the US, the relationship between the sheriff and other police departments varies widely from state to state, and indeed in some states from county to county. In some counties, the sheriff can be the most powerful figure, but in other jurisdictions the sheriff may do little more than keep the jail, transport prisoners, and/or provide courthouse security.

Many US cities and some counties have a chief of police who is the commanding officer of the police department. The chief of police is invariably appointed by the executive authority of the municipality or county; it is almost never an elected office.

In many US jurisdictions, the sheriff also has duties with regard to service of process and summonses that are issued by state courts. The sheriff also often conducts auction sales of real property in foreclosure in many jurisdictions, and is often also empowered to conduct seizures of chattel property that is being seized to satisfy a judgment. In other jurisdictions, these civil process duties are performed by other officers, such as a marshal or constable.

Connecticut abolished sheriffs by popular referendum in 2002. Hawaii has the Sheriff of Hawaii, who is part of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

The federal equivalent to the office of sheriff is the United States Marshals Service, an agency of the Department of Justice: there is one U.S. Marshal for each federal judicial district (94 total); the Marshal and his or her deputies are responsible for the transport of prisoners and security for the United States District Courts, and also issue and enforce certain civil process.

Compare to the former role of High Sheriff in England and Wales.


In Scotland a sheriff is a judge in the second tier court, called the Sheriff Court. The sheriff is a professional judge in comparison with the District Courts in Scotland or the English lowest courts which are presided over by lay magistrates.

The sheriff court is the court of first instance for both civil and criminal cases, but the court's sentencing powers are limited so major crimes (rape, murder etc.) and complex or high value civil cases are dealt with in the High Court (for criminal matters) or the Court of Session (for civil matters).

There are six Sheriffdoms in Scotland, each with a Sheriff Principal . Under each sheriffdom are sheriff districts, each with a court presided over by a sheriff.

Sheriffs are usually advocates and increasingly solicitors with many years legal experience. Until recently they were appointed by the Scottish Executive (on the advice of the Lord Advocate). However, the Scotland Act 1998, introduced the European Convention of Human Rights into Scots Law. A subsequent legal challenge to the impartiality of the Sheriffs based on the provisions of the Convention, lead to the setting up of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland . The Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland now makes recomendations to the First Minister who makes all judicial appointments in Scotland other than in the District Court.

(See: Scots law)

City of London

In the City of London, the position of sheriff is one of the officers of the Corporation. Two are elected by the liverymen of the City each year to assist the Lord Mayor, attend the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, and present petitions to Parliament: usually one is an alderman and the other not. The aldermanic sheriff is then likely to become Lord Mayor in due course.


Like the word sheriff itself, the office of sheriff has an interesting history. In Anglo-Saxon England, a reeve was an officer who was appointed by the king to be responsible for the public business of the locality. A high-ranking official, the shire-reeve was the representative of the royal authority in a shire or county. The office of sheriff was continued after the Norman conquest, then known as a viscount.

The most famous holder of this office was the folkloric Sheriff of Nottingham, enemy of Robin Hood.

Fictional sheriffs

Perhaps the most famous legendary sheriff is the Sheriff of Nottingham of the Robin Hood legends. Many Western movies feature sheriffs of frontier towns who are either corrupt weaklings or glorious heroes who eventually rid their towns of all their mean elements. See Destry Rides Again and Dodge City for two examples of the latter type.

See also

Other uses

Sheriff also refers to a "crowd control" vehicle of the US military, planned for Iraq deployment in autumn 2005.[1]

Last updated: 05-10-2005 01:43:05
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