Sheriffs: “can run out of town agents for the U.S. Forest Service; the Bureau of Land Management; the IRS; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Environmental Protection Agency; and even the Food and Drug Administration.”
Emerging movement encourages sheriffs to act as shield against federal tyranny
The 100 or so sheriffs gathered in a Las Vegas hotel ballroom two weeks ago learned that some weighty titles have been attached to the stars they wear on their chests.
"Ultimate enforcers of the Constitution." "Protectors against government tyranny." "America's last hope." "Brave oath keepers."
And the sheriffs, including eight from Colorado, learned that they need to protect their citizenry from much more than local lawbreakers. In today's world, public enemy No. 1 just might be the federal government – or the "out-of-control federal bureaucracy," as organizers of the convention like to refer to it.
The person who will "stand tall against federal tyranny," even if it means armed resistance, according to organizers, is the county sheriff.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association's inaugural convention was designed to be the national coming-out for this idea and the start of an educational movement that its founder hopes will sweep the country. Its sponsors included the John Birch Society, the Gun Owners of America and the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute. Advertisers included survivalist businesses, anti-IRS proponents, purveyors of gold-buying secrets and one company that sells a guide, "How to Turn Your Home into a Fortress."
"We have a large group of people in my county who agree with these principles," said Weld County Sheriff John Cook, explaining why he attended the conference. "I agree with a lot of it. But I don't advocate, obviously, violence against other law enforcement offices."
The conference was organized by former Graham County, Ariz., Sheriff Richard Mack. Mack gained fame in the 1990s and became a Tea Party darling when he and six other sheriffs challenged the constitutionality of the gun-control measure commonly known as the Brady Bill. In a case that went to the Supreme Court, Mack's attorneys successfully argued that local law enforcement jurisdictions can't be compelled to carry out federally mandated background checks. It was seen as a huge victory for the sovereignty of local jurisdictions.
Three years ago, Mack wrote a book, "The County Sheriff: America's Last Hope." In it, he asserted that sheriffs have the supreme law enforcement power in their counties under the Constitution and the 10th Amendment. Much of what federal agents are doing in counties is unconstitutional, he wrote. Federal agents have no authority beyond policing treason, piracy, treaty violations and counterfeiting.
Thus, the scofflaws that sheriffs might encounter today – and who should be run out of town by a SWAT team, if that's what it takes – include agents for the U.S. Forest Service; the Bureau of Land Management; the IRS; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Environmental Protection Agency; and even the Food and Drug Administration.
Online Constitutional Sheriffs materials state, "The sheriff's position overrides any federal agents or even the arrogant FBI agents who attempt to assume jurisdiction in our cases."
Colorado had the largest representation at this convention, along with California and Utah.
"I think sheriffs went because they just wanted to be informed about what is expected of a sheriff," said Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell. "I know I want to make sure the federal government does what it's supposed to do and doesn't encroach on the rights of my citizens.
"As for that making us radicals, I don't see that."
Some Colorado sheriffs, like Spruell, said they went because they believe in much of what the Constitutional Sheriffs group espouses. They stressed that, at the same time, they have mostly good working relations with law enforcement officers from federal agencies that operate in their counties.
"I have good cooperation with federal agents. I have no problems with them," said Montrose County Sheriff Rick Dunlap. "The feds always contact me when they are doing something in my county."
Some sheriffs were simply curious about Mack's teachings and hoped to learn something about the group. Others said they felt they should go because they have a lot of conservative, right-wing constituents who believe in what was taught in Las Vegas.
In some cases, those constituents donated the money to send their sheriffs. Some pestered the sheriffs about going – something that doesn't happen when the meeting is, say, a mainstream gathering of the County Sheriffs of Colorado.
"It was odd. Two people came to the window out front to ask if I was going," Weld County's Cook said.
Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey was one sheriff who didn't receive an invitation to the convention and was a little uncomfortable with the idea of constituents raising money to send sheriffs to it. He also was unhappy with the impression some sheriffs had that if they didn't go, their conservative voters would try to oust them in the next election.
"I have a lot of respect for the Constitution and for its framework of keeping our people safe," he said. "But sheriffs should not be strong-armed into going to something like this." (Excuse me, sheriffs are elected by WTP! dw)
Chris Olson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said of the convention: "We didn't endorse it or authorize it. It was an individual sheriff's decision."
Mack, who still refers to himself as "Sheriff Mack" and is currently running as a Republican for a congressional seat in Texas, said his organization didn't pressure any sheriffs. In a phone interview, he also said that his movement may come across sounding bellicose, but he is really promoting peace.
"The potential for violence is always there. But I pray it won't come to that. We don't want that," Mack said.
Some of the speakers at the convention did tell of confrontations that involved the threat of officers for different agencies trying to arrest each other. The use of force was not ruled out.
Elkhart County, Ind., Sheriff Brad Rogers told of chasing federal regulators out of his county after they repeatedly did inspections at an Amish dairy farm that was selling raw milk. He threatened to arrest the regulators if they tried to come back.
Sheriff Tony DeMeo of Nye County, Nev., recounted how he had to threaten to bring out his SWAT team to go up against a federal government SWAT team when federal agents were seizing cattle from a local rancher.
Sheriff Dave Mattis of Big Horn County, Wyo., told the conference about the edict he has issued in his county. Federal agents are forbidden to enter his territory without his approval.
El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who attended with El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, gave a presentation that took another tack. She told how her county recently passed a resolution to nullify the National Defense Authorization Act. She urged other counties to do the same.
Fear that this act gives the federal government the power to arrest and detain citizens without filing charges or seeking convictions is another issue that garners a lot of attention on websites associated with the Constitutional Sheriffs group.
It also became a convention flash point when a speaker repeatedly called Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, a "traitor" for supporting the Defense Authorization Act.
Montrose County's Dunlap said he and several other sheriffs "were ready to walk out at that point."
Many of the presentations at the convention revolved around more common land-use disputes over road closures and hunting restrictions. Those were the stories that resonated most with Colorado sheriffs who attended and who believe the federal government is overstepping its bounds on these issues.
Steven Hall, a spokesman for the BLM, said he doesn't want to argue with sheriffs about interpretations of the Constitution and federal jurisdiction on federal lands. He said that for the most part, his agency has good working relationships with sheriffs, especially when it comes to issues such as fighting wildfires and eradicating marijuana.
"There has been some heated rhetoric but no serious incidents. I hope it remains that way," he said.
Steve Segin, a spokesman for the Forest Service, issued a statement saying his agency has had "excellent working relationships" with sheriffs in Colorado.
Several representatives for the FBI at the state and national level said they had not heard of the Constitutional Sheriffs movement. They declined to comment.
Mack said he is already planning a second convention for this summer, when he will continue to promote the idea that "the greatest threat to our freedom now is the federal government."
"There is nothing subversive about any of this," he said. "It's as American as apple pie."
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