Police can—and sometimes do—legally form a “posse”

Bizarre, NakedLaw, News, Rights

The Wild West is alive and well in rural central Pennsylvania. Clearfield County Sheriff Wes Thurston has called for citizens to join the very first Volunteer Clearfield County Sheriff’s Posse, a force of deputies who—armed with their own handguns, shotguns, and rifles—will help uphold the law.

Protecting the public, the old-fashioned way

Approximately 500 civilians will be on call to help the sheriff and his deputies respond to natural disasters, search for missing persons, gather criminal evidence, and perform other non-emergency tasks, such as assisting with riots, demonstrations, and wide-scale unrest.

Clearfield County, the state’s third-largest county by area, covers 1,154 square miles and boasts a population of just under 82,000. The posse will be split into five units, each managed by a county deputy, to enable quick response times across the rural area.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Mike Churner will oversee posse members, who will have no power of arrest or the right to use force beyond that of an ordinary citizen. The ideal candidate for the posse has a military or police background. Volunteers with managerial experience are encouraged to apply for supervisory positions within the posse. And Thurston urged women to apply, hoping they’ll be more suitable than men when the posse embarks on searches for missing children.

Interested county residents are hurrying to local gun shops, sporting goods stores, and hardware stores to obtain posse applications. Each applicant is required to undergo background checks and sign an affidavit regarding outstanding arrest warrants and alcohol and drug use.

Citizens who are selected are required to don black shirts and jackets and are encouraged to carry handguns, rifles, or shotguns. When asked about the guns, Thurston (who thinks “everyone should carry a firearm”) said, “As sheriff, it is my duty to uphold our constitutional rights. If the posse members want to carry guns and they have the appropriate permits, they have that right under the Second Amendment.”

Is an armed posse even legal?

According to Christopher Corso, criminal defense attorney and founder of Corso Law Group, a posse is legal. “The sheriff can deputize someone to assist in law enforcement if certain criteria are met. In most cases, anyone with a previous arrest record is not accepted. Driving records are reviewed as well.”

So, it’s legal, but not necessarily prudent.

“It’s rare for a sheriff’s department to do this,” says Corso. “In the past, this would have been done primarily for crowd control, manhunts, or a general overseeing of an influx of people entering the jurisdiction for a limited time where the ratio of officer-to-person is too uneven.”

And as for those guns? “The sheriff’s department cannot arm the individuals,” explains Corso. “However, deputized posse members can be armed as normal citizens [exercising] their right under the Constitution.” In Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, where hunting and target shooting are a way of life, there is no shortage of folks who already own guns.

What could possibly go wrong?

Thurston said the posse concept “has been carefully planned” and the screening process “has been reviewed by attorneys.” But it’s what happens once the posse is in place that is worrisome.

“Posse members and the government open themselves up to a tremendous amount of liability for the conduct and actions of the members,” says Corso. “Even though they are not being armed by the county, if the member chooses to legally exercise his or her right to carry, the government is responsible for the actions taken by that individual while performing official duties directed by the sheriff.”

And the liability is both civil and criminal. “If a civilian were to be shot and injured or killed by a posse member, the county would perhaps be criminally liable for that action,” explains Corso, “as it is not unreasonable to assume that a poorly trained individual who is armed would not possess the necessary skills and training to prevent an incident from escalating to a tragic point.”

It’s this potential liability that makes the modern-day posse so uncommon. “When placed on a scale,” says Corso, “the potential issues that open up the government to liability severely outweigh any potential benefit.”

But Sheriff Thurston remains positive. “We think that [the posse] will generate community pride. The people will realize, ‘Hey, if we stick together, we can accomplish things.’”