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Law Enforcement

The Tennessee Constitution does not prescribe the duties of the office of sheriff even though sheriffs are constitutional officers. The office of sheriff carries all the common-law powers and duties except as modified by statute. State ex rel. Thompson v. Reichman, 188 S.W. 225, 227, reh'g denied, 188 S.W. 597 (Tenn. 1916). As noted, the sheriff’s duties were originally defined by the common law but are now largely prescribed by statute. George v. Harlan, 1998 WL 668637, *3 (Tenn. 1998) citing Metropolitan Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County v. Poe, 383 S.W.2d 265, 273 (1964). Over time, the sheriff's responsibilities have expanded from being primarily ministerial to include peacekeeping functions. Today, the sheriff's statutory duties encompass his common law duties and can be grouped into four broad categories: (1) keeping the peace, (2) attending the courts, (3) serving the process and orders of the courts, and (4) operating the jail. See George v. Harlan, 1998 WL 668637, *3 (Tenn. 1998). In counties with a metropolitan form of government, some of these functions may be assigned by the charter to other officials.

Keeping the Peace

The sheriff “is the commander in chief of the law forces of the county. All judicial and ministerial officers of justice and all city officials are required to aid him, and the male population of his county is subject to his command ‘in the prevention and suppression,’ not only of violent breaches of the peace, but of all public offenses.” State ex rel. Thompson v. Reichman, 188 S.W. 225, 227-228 (Tenn. 1916); T.C.A. § 38-3-102. The duties and powers of a sheriff within the limits of an incorporated city are precisely the same that they are in the remainder of the county. The law draws no distinction. Reichman at 228. Op. Tenn. Att'y Gen. 08-134 (August 14, 2008).

The sheriff is the conservator of the peace, and it is the sheriff’s duty to suppress all affrays, riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, insurrections, or other breaches of the peace. In addition, it is the duty of the sheriff to ferret out, detect, and prevent crime, to secure evidence of crimes; and to apprehend and arrest criminals. The sheriff is also charged with patrolling the roads of the county. The sheriff must furnish the necessary deputies to carry out these duties.T.C.A. §§ 8-8-213, 38-3-102, and 38-3-108.

Attending the Courts

The sheriff is charged with the custody and security of the courthouse unless the county legislative body assigns this duty to someone else. It is the duty of the sheriff to prevent trespasses, exclude intruders, and keep the courthouse and the courthouse grounds in order, reporting from time to time the repairs required and the expense, to the county legislative body. Further, it is  the duty of the sheriff to see that the state and national flags are properly displayed in each courtroom while the county legislative body is in session. T.C.A. § 5-7-108. See also Ferriss v. Williamson, 67 Tenn. 424 (1874); Driver v. Thompson, 358 S.W.2d 477 (Tenn. 1962).

Except in Davidson County, it is the duty of the sheriff to attend upon all the courts held in the county when in session, cause the courthouse or courtroom to be kept in order for the accommodation of the courts, and obey the lawful orders and directions of the court. T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(2). And, unless otherwise provided, it is the duty of the sheriff in every county to provide sufficient bailiffs to serve the general sessions courts. T.C.A. § 16-15-715. Furthermore, it is the duty of the sheriff to furnish the necessary deputies and special deputies to attend and dispense with the business of the juvenile courts. T.C.A. § 37-1-213. See Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. No. 00-009 (January 19, 2000) (Hamilton County).

Serving the Process and Orders of the Courts

It is the duty of the sheriff to execute and return, according to law, the process and orders of the courts of record of this state, and of officers of competent authority, with due diligence, when delivered to the sheriff for that purpose. T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(1).

It is the duty of the sheriff to execute within the county all writs and other process legally issued and directed to the sheriff and make due return thereof, either personally or by a lawful deputy or, in civil lawsuits only, by a lawfully appointed civil process server. T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(5)(A). The provisions of T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(5)(A) relative to civil process servers do not apply in Hamilton, McMinn, Sullivan and Sumner counties. T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(5)(B).

It is the duty of the sheriff to levy every writ of execution upon a defendant’s property, first on the defendant's goods and chattels if there are any and upon the defendant’s lands in order to satisfy the plaintiff’s judgment, and upon a surety’s property in the proper case.  T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(13), (14), and (15). For additional information, see Service of Civil Process.

Operating the Jail

Tennessee case law makes it clear that the sheriff, by virtue of his office, is the jailor and is entitled to the custody of the jail. Felts v. City of Memphis, 39 Tenn. 650 (1859); State ex rel. Bolt v. Drummond, 128 Tenn. 271, 160 S.W. 1082 (1913). See also State v. Cummins, 42 S.W. 880 (Tenn. 1897). It is the duty of the sheriff to take charge and custody of the jail of the sheriff's county and of the prisoners therein. The sheriff is charged with receiving those persons lawfully committed to the jail and with keeping them personally or by deputies or jailer until they are lawfully discharged. It is the duty of the sheriff to be constantly at the jail or have someone there with the keys to liberate the prisoners in case of fire. T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(3). For additional information, see Jail Administration.