The principles of the Posse reemerge half a century later

US sheriffs rebel against state mask orders even as Covid-19 spreads


Growing resistance is related to far-right movement that claims sheriffs must defy laws they believe are unconstitutional

Sheriff’s deputies look on as protesters block the road to Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota.
Sheriff’s deputies look on as protesters block the road to Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota.

Sheriffs around the country are refusing to enforce or are even actively resisting Covid-19 mask laws and lockdowns, while others have permitted or encouraged armed vigilantism in response to Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests.

Critics say both phenomena are related to a far-right “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which believes that sheriffs are the highest constitutional authority in the country, with the power – and duty – to resist state and federal governments.

When Richard K Jones, the sheriff of Butler county, Ohio, said recently that he wasn’t going to be the “mask police”, and would not be enforcing Governor Mike DeWine’s mandates for high-risk counties, he became the latest in a wave of sheriffs either refusing to enforce coronavirus-related public health rules, or encouraging people to break them in the midst of a worsening pandemic. At least eight county sheriffs in Texas have said they will not enforce Governor Greg Abbott’s mask mandate. Tracy Murphree, the Denton county sheriff, explained to a local newspaper he believed “the constitution trumps everything”, and, “when people are told to do something that violates their civil rights, it invites chaos and protest”.

At least three sheriffs in Michigan, three in North Carolina, three in California, two in New Mexico and one in Nevada made similar announcements about state orders. At least one Tennessee sheriff has questioned the constitutionality of local government mask orders which the state has made provision for. In North Carolina, Jimmy Thornton, the Sampson county sheriff, called Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s mask order “not only unconstitutional, but unenforceable” in a Facebook post on 24 June, adding that “my deputies will NOT enforce an executive order that I feel violates the constitutional liberties of citizens”.

In that state, earlier in the course of the pandemic, at least 10 sheriffs had said that they would not enforce the state’s lockdown restrictions. At least two sheriffs who refused to enforce lockdown orders – in Arizona and California – subsequently contracted Covid-19. In Washington state last month, meanwhile, at least two sheriffs have gone further than saying that they won’t enforce the law. Rob Snaza, the Lewis county sheriff, said in a speech which became a viral video that anyone who complied with the instructions was a “sheep”. His counterpart in nearby Klickitat county, Bob Songer, called the governor, Jay Inslee, an “idiot” who was “violating the liberties and constitutional rights of the individual” by making mask-wearing compulsory.

An anti-mask protestor holds up a sign in front of the Ohio Statehouse.
An anti-mask protester holds up a sign in front of the Ohio statehouse.

The anti-mask stance from sheriffs follows an earlier wave of resistance to stay-at-home orders. Adam Fortney, the sheriff of Snohomish county, Washington, wrote on Facebook in April that he would not be “enforcing an order preventing religious freedoms or constitutional rights”. Fortney’s claim that Inslee’s orders were unconstitutional has inspired a recall effort against him. He was one of at least 60 sheriffs nationwide who had pushed back on lockdown rules by May, according to a report by the Marshall Project, a criminal justice focussed non-profit news organization.

In turn, many of the sheriffs refusing to enforce mask orders have previously resisted states’ attempts to place further restrictions on firearms. Songer, the Klickitat county sheriff, was lauded in conservative media in 2019 when he said he would not enforce the provisions of a ballot measure that, among other things, placed age restrictions on the purchase of assault rifles. Aitor Narvaiza, the Elko county, Nevada, sheriff who has refused to enforce Governor Steve Sisolak’s mask order, was involved last year in an attempt to create “second amendment sanctuaries” in rural counties after state lawmakers sought to beef up background checks. Daryle Wheeler, the sheriff of Bonner county, Idaho, has this year both accused Governor Brad Little of “suspending the constitution” with lockdown rules, and filed suit against the city of Sandpoint after it sought to ban guns at a municipal festival.

Sheriff’s deputies form a line to keep demonstrators and counter demonstrators apart during an ‘America first’ demonstration in California. Sheriffs across the US have said they won’t enforce state mask orders.
Sheriff’s deputies form a line to keep demonstrators and counter demonstrators apart during an ‘America first’ demonstration in California. Sheriffs across the US have said they won’t enforce state mask orders.

According to Cloee Cooper, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, this is not coincidental. All of these sheriffs are members of organizations associated with the constitutional sheriffs movement, or under their growing influence.

With its origins in ideas of “county supremacy” first pushed by far-right groups opposed to desegregation, the idea that county sheriffs have a “legal and ethical duty to refuse to enforce state and federal policies and laws they believe to be unconstitutional” has become the basis of a nationwide network, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) headed by Richard Mack.

In an email, Cooper said that her research had revealed that “Richard Mack was encouraging sheriffs to defy shelter-in-place orders and support reopen protests”. While the CSPOA was founded to resist Obama-era firearms restrictions, they had pivoted to resisting mask and lockdown orders, defining them as signs of “impending tyranny”. She added that constitutional sheriffs had moved to deputize posses in response to Black Lives Matter protests, or had fueled false rumors about busloads of “Antifa” activists rolling into rural areas.

While constitutional sheriffs claim to act in the name of public safety, they may actually encourage disorder. One research paper suggests that the election of a constitutionalist sheriff in a county may increase the likelihood of political violence against federal officials by up to 50%. Cooper added that “sheriffs that openly align with the Patriot movement, like constitutional sheriffs, (pave) the way for a further slide toward authoritarianism.”