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Although a sheriff was not officially provided for until the 1776 Constitution, such an officer has existed in Delaware since its earliest settlement. Provision was made for a provost-marshal in the 1643 civil list. The Provost-Marshal, the Governor and the Constable were the only named non-military officials at that time.1

When the Dutch took over in 1655, the Swedish sheriff G. Van Dyke petitioned the director-general, and council to concentrate the houses in the form of a village for safety purposes. Such request was granted. In addition, the Governor authorized the sheriff to arrest and return any Swedish person trying to leave the village.2 In 1657, Van Dyke had received a commission as “schout” or sheriff of South River. Functions and status of this office varied from being considered a municipal dignitary to a simple police officer.3

The entry “G. Van Dyke, sheriff on South River, being in court, demands a copy of Jacquet’s charge against Swenske, which was ordered,” shows that Von Kyke held an authoritative position in court proceedings in 1657.4

The office of schout was provided for in the Dutch settlements by the Conditions granted by the City of Amsterdam in 1656. This schout, also known as schout-fiscal, was a combination of sheriff and public prosecutor or the equivalent of the Swedish provost-marshal. The Vice-Director was appointed by the Deputies of Amsterdam with the Vice-Director administering the duties of the office.5

When the English conquered the Dutch in 1664 the office of schout continued. Within English settlements of the seventeenth century two officials, the sheriff and the lord-lieutenant administered the county. Of these two, the sheriff was the most important having considerable power and dignity. Sheriffs were chosen by the King from a list chosen by the Privy Council to serve one term only. Duties included holding the monthly county court to hear small civil cases; presiding at the session of county court for the election of members of Parliament; and employing considerable influence at the annual assizes.7

In 1668, in order to prevent abuses and oppositions in Civil Magistrates, Governor Lovelace ordered the Schout with other to settle disputes by a majority vote. By 1671, Indian violence became such a threat that a new defense plan was adopted and a High Sheriff appointed.8

In 1672, provisions were made in New Castle for the office of Schout to be converted into a Sheriffalty with the High Sheriff’s power extending both in the corporation and river. This sheriff was annually appointed by the Governor.9

In 1673, the Dutch regained control but the office of schout or sheriff remained with instructions to “take care of the Reformed Christian Religion” and attended and preside over all their meetings and “to seize” and detain [criminals] and to convey them as prisoners under proper safeguard to the Chief Magistrate with good and correct information for or against the offenders.”10 Additionally, “the Sheriff and Schepens had the power to conclude on some ordinances for the welfare and peace of the inhabitants of their district, such as laying out highways, setting off lands and gardens.”11

The Dutch again took control from 1673-1674 until the treaty of Westminster was signed giving the English power. In 1674, a Captain Cantwell was appointed sheriff of Delaware and authorized to receive quitrents, customs and excises, as existed before Dutch rule, and report upon all matters regarding revenue.12 Cantwell was also commissioned to take the Fort of New Castle and to administer the oath of offices there and at Whorekill.13 By 1675, Cantwell had sent a letter to the Governor confirming the possession of the fort and the settling of the magistrates. The Governor responded by empowering the sheriff to act in his absence as surveyor for the entire river and bay.

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The Duke of York’s Laws did not actually go into effect in Delaware until 1676 when regular courts of justice were reestablished, the Dutch name of Schout was abandoned, and the official known as the High Sheriff was commissioned. This High Sheriff was empowered to issue writs or warrants; to preside as “Chieffe” at any of the meetings, and to nominate and take security from the marshal in each riding. The Laws also provided that each riding should have a turn in having a sheriff chosen in its jurisdiction.14

In 1676, the sheriff lost considerable power when it was resolved that sheriffs could preside over the Justices of the Peace whose duty it was to represent matters in court, and could execute laws or court orders but could not preside or have any vote in court. Consequently, the sheriff was reduced from prosecutor and judge to mere agent in executing the orders of the court.15 Finally, duties of the sheriff of Delaware concurred with those of the English sheriff. The sheriff was authorized to represent but not judge any poor person in court if such person so requested.16 During the Dutch regime the Governor appointed a sheriff from plural nominations. The English continued this method until 1831.17 Other duties of the sheriff included administering corporal punishment, executions, collecting assessments and fines, execution of warrants of attachment, and warrants to summon and empanel a jury, and operate the pillory. Police power was added to the official duties when, in 1676, a prison was built within the Fort and the sheriff was given the responsibility of the prisoners.18 The sheriff also served as coroner until such office was officially created. Also in 1676, laws were passed providing for regular deputies appointed by the sheriff instead of military deputies chosen by the military commander. In short, the Duke of York’s Law changed the duties of the sheriff from public prosecutor or judge to the authority of police powers.19 Penn arrived in 1682, but few changes were made in the sheriff’s office. The Governor selected such official from “double” the number of sheriffs needed with each sheriff giving sufficient security upon appointment. In addition, there were religious qualifications to meet.20 At the first meeting of the Assembly under Penn’s charter in 1684, the sheriff read the names of the newly elected members.21 The sheriff was subject to arrest only by the coroner.22

The first Constitution of Delaware made the Chancellor, Judges, and Attorney-General the conservators of the peace throughout the State and the sheriffs and coroners the conservators of the peace within the counties. Two persons were chosen by the citizens of each county at the general elections from whom the Governor would appoint one as sheriff for a term of three years. No person could serve consecutive terms.23 Also in 1792, a law passed to attempt to halt election corruption such as buying votes by fining the abusers.24 Another law of 1792, forbade sheriffs to house their prisoners in any public drinking house or the sheriff’s private home without consent of the detained.25 Sheriffs were ordered to summon the Grand Jurymen and Petty Jurymen every year.26 In addition, sheriffs were empowered to seize and sell lands in the settlement of debts but were liable for the debts if they neglected to act on the executions within a certain time limit.27 Sheriffs could retrieve and set free slaves from their masters if so ruled in court.28 In 1786, sheriffs were empowered to summon men for the assistance of stranded ships along the coast.29

In 1792, what was known as the twelve pound act passed enabling Justices of the Peace to issue the executions for debts 12 pounds or less to the sheriffs who became responsible for the debts if they failed to act on the executions within a certain time limit.30 By 1793, a law passed requiring sheriffs and coroners to file the following oath before entering office: “ I A.B. do swear, or affirm, that in executing every writ or precept, that shall come to my hand, for the return of jurors, I will not summon or return any man for a juror, who, as I believe or suspect, will be influenced, in determining any matter that shall come before him as a juror, by hatred, malice or ill will, fear, favor or affection, or any partiality whatever.” Sheriffs were expected to choose “sober and judicious persons, of fair character, and none other” as jurors.31 Also in 1793, an act passed authorizing sheriffs to serve replevins, and to take bonds in double value of the goods distrained in replevins of distresses for rent.32 Sheriffs were also required to give security.33 In 1796, sheriffs authorized to receive and turnover to the State Treasurer any money forfeited to the state.34

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Beginning in 1802, sheriffs were required to be present at Court of Chancery hearings.35 By, 1805, under the Supreme Court’s orders, sheriffs were required to remove incompetent goalers or keepers of prisons. Failure to do so within one month resulted in a forty dollar fine.36

In 1811, an act passed requiring sheriffs to annually post and deliver to inspectors, the offices needed filling in the general election. Additionally, the sheriff provided each inspector with written or printed forms, tally lists and returns, ballot boxes, sealing was, tape and an alphabetical list of white free male citizens twenty-one years and older residing and assessed in each district. After the voting, sheriffs held the sealed ballot boxes until the next session of the General Assembly.37 Also 1811, sheriffs were empowered to summon Grand jurors to Quarter Sessions and to Court of Oyer and Terminer; Petit juror to the Supreme Court, Court of Common Pleas, and Court of Quarter Sessions and every other inquest or juror or witness necessary for the executing of justice. For every instance of neglect or default a sheriff made in summoning jurors, he/she was fined fifty dollars.38 When a Justice of the Peace committed a slave to the sheriff’s custody the sheriff was responsible for advertising the slave in a public newspaper and releasing said slave from prison if not picked up by owner.39

Beginning annually in 1817, the sheriff, jointly with the Levy Court Commissioners, selected the jurors to serve in the courts for the succeeding year.40 By 1818, all executions of debt above forty shillings were directed by the Justices of the Peace to Sheriffs for recovery and return.41 And in 1819, it became illegal for Sheriffs to buy or bid off any property or articles for their own use at sales.42 The Sheriffs had charge and custody of the goal in each county and appointed the keepers of such. No sheriff was permitted to keep a tavern or public house of entertainment in the goals nor let prisoners partake of these things.43

In 1827, an act passed requiring sheriffs to sell those slaves that were sentenced to be exported from the state.44 Also in 1827, it was ruled that when the officer having sold land to a purchaser be dead or out of office the sheriff was authorized to execute and acknowledge deeds of conveyance to petitioners.45 By 1829, sheriffs were authorized to receive bail bond.46 And in 1829, an act passed that required the Sheriffs of Kent and Sussex Counties to erect an armory within sixty feet of and on the south or southeast side of the goal in their counties. It was the sheriffs’ responsibility to keep the public arms safe within the armory and to monitor the entrance and exit of such arms.47

In 1849, an act passed authorizing sheriffs to summon “good and lawful Men” to witness executions and anyone else they deemed it proper to invite.48 That same year, the sheriffs’ duties regarding the summoning of juries was reaffirmed.49

In 1851, it became illegal for non-resident free Negroes to enter the state. Sheriffs were authorized to capture any free Negroes doing so and sell them to out of state buyers.50 Another law of 1851 required the sheriffs to publish sheriff sales in two newpapers two weeks prior to the date of sale.51 In 1853, sheriffs were ordered to produce certificates of lien dating back twenty years prior to the day of sale.52

Beginning in 1871, Justices of the Peace could order sheriffs to seize fishing boats operating without a license. To facilitate this process, sheriffs were authorized to form an armed posse and use force and firearms to overtake the violators.53 New Castle County Sheriffs were freed of collecting petty fines when an act passed in 1871 stating that only writs of summons, attachments, or processes of execution exceeding fifty dollars could be directed to the sheriff.54 Also in 1871, it became the sheriffs’ duty to execute deeds conveying the titles of lands appropriated by the government to the United States.55

In 1873, sheriffs became responsible for showing what lien or liens the money arising from a sale was applied to and how much was applied to each lien.56 Cruelty to animals became an issue in 1875 which resulted in a new duty for sheriffs. They were authorized to arrest and bring before the justice of the peace anyone being cruel to an animal.57 In 1879, the time limit requiring newly elected sheriffs to enter into official recognizances was extended.58 1899 brought sheriffs the power to seize and sell the property of Gypsies not possessing a license.59

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Kent and Sussex County Sheriffs were authorized in 1905 to commit certain classes of prisoners within their counties to the New Castle County Workhouse beginning in 1907.60 In 1913, it became the responsibility of sheriffs to transport, provide camps, and care for convict chain gangs.61 In 1933, Kent and Sussex County Sheriffs became responsible for keeping a daily record of each prisoner’s behavior. For each month of good behavior the sheriff could reduce the prisoner’s sentence by five days. After one year of good behavior sentences could be reduced seven days for each month. Following two years, sentence reduction was nine days for each month. After three years, ten days for each month. Sheriffs could deduct earned time for violation of rules and discipline or for want of diligence and fidelity. In addition, sheriffs could recommend for pardon and restoration to citizenship any prisoner who passed the period of his sentence within five days of the completion thereof provided said prisoner had no record of a violation of rules or discipline.62

In 1935, sheriffs became jointly responsible with the Police Department for seeing that all practitioners of chiropody in the state were legally registered and report to the Attorney General those in violation.63 Sheriffs were also empowered in 1935 to arrest any person operating a business establishment without a certified license.64 Also in 1935, sheriffs were ordered to subpoena witnesses called before the Temporary Emergency Relief Commission.65

In 1937, the Kent County Sheriff was required to witness the inauguration of a new seal and breaking of the old for the Supreme Court and the Superior Court of Kent County.66 Also in 1937, sheriffs in all three counties were authorized to seize and sell the grounds and buildings of owners not paying their sewer bills.67 Sheriffs were empowered to serve notices of estate settlements for the Orphans Court in 1939.68 That same year sheriffs were authorized to summon a jury of inquest for the Escheator to settle the estates of the deceased tht had no heirs.69 Finally in 1939, Sheriffs were ordered to transmit all arrest information and photographs to the newly created Bureau of Identification within the State Police Department within forty-eight hours after receiving said information.70

In 1941, Kent County Sheriffs received permission to work prisoners and apply their wages to fines imposed by the court at the time of the sentence.71 Also in 1941, the Kent County Sheriff witnessed the destruction of old and institution of a new seal for the Kent County Register of Wills while the New Castle County Sheriff witnessed the seal ceremony for New Castle County Prothonotary’s Office.72 New Castle County Sheriffs were empowered to serve and execute writs, rules and processes of the New Castle County Court of Common Pleas in 1941.73

In 1943 an act made sheriffs’ salaries in all three counties equal.74 Another law reaffirmed the sheriff’s duty to serve eviction notices.75 In 1945, election duties and responsibilities were transferred from the sheriff’s office to the newly created Department of Elections.76 A law of 1949, required sheriffs to keep their offices and records open at all times, including Sundays throughout the year with Saturdays during the months of July and August excepted.77 By 1951, the previous law was amended to except Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year.78

No significant changes occurred until 1980, when Senate Bill No. 477 proposed that the terms of office for the Sussex and Kent County Sheriffs be changed to two years. New Castle County Sheriffs served for four years. No sheriff could serve consecutive terms.79 In 1982, the above proposed amendment was enacted.80

In 1989, the office of sheriff in Delaware holds a position of less importance than in the past. Responsibilities include processing orders of the court system; summoning inquests, jurors, and witnesses for the courts; conducting execution sales against personal and real estate property; and transporting prisoners from the courts.

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1 deValinger, p. 5, 8.

2 Hazard, p. 243.

3 Oxford Dictionary, part 2 of vol. 8.

4 Hazard, p. 237.

5 deValinger, p. 44.

6 Hazard, p. 365.

7 Fairlie, pp. 10-11.

8 Duke of York Laws, p. 446-447.

9 Duke of York Laws, p. 451.

10 Duke of York Laws, p. 452.

11 deValinger, p. 104.

12 Hazard, p. 413.

13 Hazard, p. 414.

14 Duke of York Laws, p. 50.

15 deValinger, p. 142.

16 deValinger, p. 145.

17 deValinger, p. 146.

18 N.C. Court Record, Vol. 1, p. 38; Scharf, Vol. 2, p. 615.

19 deValinger, pp. 150-153.

20 Duke of York Laws, p. 97, 102, 250.

21 Duke of York Laws, p. 495.

22 Duke of York Laws, p. 565.

23 1792 Del. Constitution, Article 8.

24 1 DL, ch. LXV

25 1 DL, ch. LXXVI

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26 1 DL, ch. XCIV

27 1 DL, ch. XLVI; 2 DL, ch. CLXXVIII

28 1 DL, ch. CLXX

29 2 DL, ch. XXVII

30 2 DL, ch. CCL

31 2 DL, ch. VIII

32 2 DL, ch. XXXIX

33 2 DL, ch. XXXII

34 2 DL, ch. XCVII

35 3 DL, ch. LXXXIX

36 3 DL, ch. CLXXXII

37 4 DL, ch. CLII

38 4 DL, ch. CLVIII

39 5 DL, ch. LXXXIII

40 5 DL, ch. CXLV

41 5 DL, ch. CLXXIX

42 5 DL, ch. CCXXXIX

43 7 DL, ch. XXXIX

44 7 DL, ch. L

45 7 DL, ch. XIX

46 7 DL, ch. CXXI

47 7 DL, ch. CXCIX

48 10 DL, ch. CCCLXXIV

49 10 DL, ch. CCCCXV

50 10 DL, ch. DXCI

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51 10 DL, ch. DXIX

52 10 DL, ch. CXIV

53 14 DL, ch. 72

54 14 DL, ch. 93

55 15 DL, ch. 8

56 14 DL, ch. 559

57 15 DL, ch. 62

58 16 DL, ch. 14

59 21 DL, ch. 167

60 23 DL, ch. 126

61 27 DL, ch. 272

62 38 DL, ch. 192

63 40 DL, ch. 108

64 40 DL, ch. 30

65 40 DL, ch. 115

66 41 DL, ch. 201, 202

67 41 DL, ch. 115

68 42 DL, ch. 143

69 42 DL, ch. 57

70 42 DL, ch. 181

71 43 DL, ch. 116

72 43 DL, ch. 118

73 43 DL, ch. 267

74 43 DL, ch. 98

75 44 DL, ch. 178

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76 45 DL, ch. 153, 154

77 47 DL, ch. 248

78 48 DL, ch. 298

79 62 DL, ch. 271

80 63 DL, ch. 211

mm; 2/13/89