Sheriff (A. S. scyre, shire, and gerefa or refa, keeper or steward), in Great Britain and the United States, the chief officer of a county. The office of sheriff is of ancient Saxon origin, as appears from the composition of the word, which successively assumed the forms of shyre-greve, shiregreve, shirereeve, and shireve. Co well writes the word shireve, and Blount shirif or shiref. In the Norman period the earl or count (comes) was the one to whom was committed the custody of the shire or county; and when in course of time he was relieved of the active functions of the office, they were devolved upon an inferior officer, called therefore vice-comes, who is identical with the sheriff. Gradually the earls were discharged not only of the duties of the office but also of the commission, and the sheriffs thus came to be the immediate officers of the crown and not of the earls; and the sheriff succeeded to almost all the authority, judicial and ministerial, that the comes or earl had hitherto possessed. Until the time of Edward II. the sheriff was elected by the inhabitants of the several counties; but a statute of the ninth year of that reign abolished election, and ever since, with few exceptions, the sheriff has been appointed, upon nomination by the king's councillors and the judges of certain ranks, by the approval of the crown.
In some cities and towns the sheriff is elected either by the whole body of the freeholders or by some particular body of the corporation. London claims prescriptive right to elect her two sheriffs. The office of sheriff is still in England one of eminent honor, and is conferred on the wealthiest and most notable commoners in the counties. - The English sheriff, the sheriff of the common law, we may say, is the custodian of the county and the conservator of the king's peace therein. In virtue of these functions he is bound to apprehend all disturbers of the peace and bind them to good behavior or commit them for examination, and to arrest and commit all felons. To these ends he has the right to summon to his aid whenever it is necessary the posse comitatus, or power of the county, and he has the custody of the county jail. In a ministerial capacity it is his office to execute all writs and processes directed to him by the superior courts of judicature, to take recognizances and bail, to summon juries, and to execute final process and judgments of the courts whether civil or criminal. As king's bailiff, he is to take into his charge all lands falling to the crown under attainders or by escheats, levy all fines and forfeitures, and collect all waifs and estrays.
Finally, in his judicial capacity he may adjudicate in certain petty civil suits. He also determines matters touching the election of knights of the shire, of coroners, and other officers. - The sheriff retains in the United States many of the faculties of the sheriff at common law; yet his capacity in all respects is much dependent on the provisions of special statutes. His judicial powers are particularly restricted here; his duties are in fact almost entirely ministerial. Generally in the United States the sheriff, like every other considerable officer, is elected by the whole body of the people, and holds his office for a prescribed term of years. In New York and some other states he is ineligible for the three years next succeeding his term of office. As he cannot perform in his own person the manifold duties of his office, the sheriff may appoint deputies. He is also in some states required to appoint an under sheriff. This officer is the equal of the sheriff himself, and acts in his stead in all respects when he is absent or his office is vacated. The sheriff may create as many general deputies as he thinks proper. The deputy sheriff in this country, though not in England, is an officer known and recognized by the law. He is separately sworn, and has his distinct rights and liabilities.
Primarily, however, the sheriff is responsible for all the deputy's defaults in respect to duties imposed by the law upon the sheriff. - As conservator of the peace it is the duty of the sheriff (and generally speaking the deputy may do what the sheriff may do) to suppress all unlawful assemblages, to quell all riots and affrays, and to arrest and commit to jail, if need be, those engaged in the disturbance of the public order. For any breach of the peace or any crime or misdemeanor committed within his view the sheriff may make an arrest without a warrant. To suppress an affray actually going on, he may even break into a dwelling house, and so he may if he is in fresh pursuit of one who has committed an offence within his view, and there is danger that he may escape if he is not followed. When the breach of the peace has been committed at a time past, it is the sheriff's duty in most cases to provide himself with a warrant before making an arrest. In the service of this process, the sheriff appears, in a ministerial capacity, as the officer of the court which issues it.
In making the arrest, the officer ought, properly speaking, to show his warrant, and make known, to a reasonable degree, the contents and purport of it; but every person within his bailiwick is bound to take notice of his official character. If the warrant is issued for the arrest of one who has committed a felony, the sheriff may even break the outer door of a house in order to execute the process. If the warrant of arrest appears upon its face to be defective in any essential respect, it is absolutely void, and all who participate in the execution of it are trespassers. The party arrested under a warrant ought to be brought presently before the court or magistrate who issued the process. - The sheriff's duties and powers in the execution of civil process differ in some respects from those imposed upon him in the execution of process in criminal matters. On the one hand, the officer is liable to the suitor at whose instance the process issues, if through negligence or error he fails to perform his whole duty in the service of it; while he is responsible to the party wronged if he exceeds the power conferred upon him. Wherever then he has reasonable grounds to doubt his authority to act in the premises, the sheriff may ask an indemnity.
This is often done in cases where the title to property which is directed to be attached is doubtful, or where the officer questions the identity of a person whom he is ordered to arrest. Service of summons in a suit is made by reading it to the party to whom it is addressed, or ordinarily by delivering to him a copy of it, or by leaving the copy at his last usual place of residence. Attachment of property, as the first step in the suit, is unknown to the common law, and is founded upon statutes. To constitute a valid attachment of personal property, the officer must take actual possession of the goods. The subsequent use of the property by the owner with the officer's permission, when no harm is done to the goods by the using, or even a resumption of the possession by the owner for the purpose of making a delivery subject to the officer's attachment, does not vacate this attachment. A warehouse may be broken into in order to make an attachment of goods deposited there. Goods in a store are well attached by locking the door and taking the key. Shares of stock may be attached by leaving an attested copy of the writ and of the return of the attachment with the treasurer or other clerk of the corporation at the business office.
The duties of the sheriff in respect to the drawing of jurors, the service of summonses or subpoenas, and other incidents of the trial of causes, are treated elsewhere. (See Jury, and Sub-pOena.) - When judgment is docketed in a civil suit against a defendant, it is the sheriff's business to levy the execution which thereupon issues at the instance of the plaintiff. Subject in some respects to the direction of the plaintiff or his attorney, it is the officer's duty to secure the amount of the execution, or the portion of it directed to be collected. If the defendant will not upon request satisfy by payment the amount of the judgment, the sheriff proceeds to satisfy it by the seizure of any goods of the defendant which can be found within the county. The levy may be made at any time before the return day of the execution, but it is expedient to make it at once lest there be any alienation of the property. Any property supposed to belong to the defendant and found in his possession, even though he asserts that it has been sold, mortgaged, or otherwise encumbered, ought to be levied upon by the officer; for if he neglects to do so, he assumes the responsibility of showing that it was in fact exempt; and yet if he does levy and the defendant's statement was indeed true, he becomes liable as trespasser to the real owner or party holding a prior lien, and therefore he has a right to demand indemnity in any such case.
In order to make a valid levy, the property ought to be present or in the view of the officer, and he should do some act to signify his claim to control it henceforth. Making a memorandum upon the execution, making an inventory of the goods, or taking a receipt for them from some responsible party, may perhaps be a sufficient indication of a levy. The sheriff may not break into a house to make a levy, but he may enter if the door is open, and remain a reasonable time. The levy in the case of real property, where the statute does not make the judgment itself a sufficient lien, is made by mere indorsement on the execution. Property taken on execution, whether real or personal, is regularly exposed by the sheriff to sale by public auction; and the sheriff can sell such property only for cash.