Sheriff Magrini: The Law, The Constitution, Enforcement and Freedom

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Sheriff Eric Magrini was once again connected to a local disturbance Tuesday when the Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting was interrupted by a crowd with a bullhorn insisting “we the people of Shasta County… appeal to our Shasta County Board of Supervisors to protect our constitutional rights.”

Magrini appears briefly, on a video of the event, posted by the Redding Patriots. He’s grinning widely just after the bullhorn speech and tells the group’s spokesperson, Elissa McEuen, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

If Magrini seems chummy with protesters, it’s probably because he is. At a time when tensions are high and conservative Shasta County residents are pushing local leaders to reopen the County, his decision (as the head of local law enforcement) not to enforce the law has gained him a new fan following.

One of the most well-publicized examples of Magrini’s unwillingness to enforce COVID-19 restrictions was during the Cottonwood Mother’s Day Rodeo, which attracted approximately 2000 participants who mingled, apparently without concern for social distancing, and in obvious defiance of Governor Newsom’s orders to stay at home. They did so without fear, as Sheriff Magrini had informed the public prior to the Rodeo that he would not be enforcing the Governor’s orders during the event.

Never mind that attending the event clearly violated the law, even according to a well-known and respected law enforcement organization, the California Peace Officers Association (CPOA). In its recommendations to law enforcement officers, CPOA cites California Government Code 8567 , which says essentially, that in a state of emergency the Governor can make orders and regulations, and that these orders and regulations constitute law.

And never mind that the Sheriff is required to enforce these orders, again, according to California law and cited by the CPOA, stating the Sheriff “shall” (must) suppress gatherings that are against the law and investigate public offenses which have been committed.

Had he suppressed the gathering and/or investigated these public offenses and pressed criminal charges on attendees, the law states violators could have received a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and/or a jail sentence not to exceed 6 months. (Keep in mind that such a misdemeanor offense is similar to the “low level” crimes the homeless are routinely charged with in Redding for such criminal acts as illegal camping.)

While a clear reading of the laws above indicates that Sheriff Magrini neglected his sworn duty to uphold the law, this seemingly obvious truth is muddied by what many will recognize as accepted practice. A review of both law enforcement resources and anecdotal experience indicates that members of law enforcement do not, in practice, always uphold the law, but instead routinely choose which laws to enforce, deciding whether to push in and look for evidence of a crime where none is yet clear (as often happens with the homeless), or pull back and choose not to cite an obvious crime (perhaps more common with speeding or red-light violations.) In fact, such choosing of which laws to enforce appears to be almost a necessity of the occupation.

In other words, despite the fact that the law clearly forbids the rodeo and similar large gatherings, and despite the fact that the law requires the sheriff to investigate it, his failure to enforce the law, or investigate the offenses, seems to fall under the normal discretion afforded him as a member of law enforcement.

What’s different in this case is the reason he gives for not enforcing the law: not just his professional judgment, but the protection of people’s rights to life and liberty. A bold appeal to the constitutional rights of the people he serves. Magrini’s actions have inspired, alternately, admiration or disgust, depending on one’s perspective. Supporters organized a rally in support of the Sheriff, while detractors published articles. Almost everyone ranted on Facebook about the topic, including Beni Johnson, wife of Bill Johnson, head pastor at our local megachurch, Bethel.

And while there’s a multitude of opinions on Magrini’s actions (or lack thereof) there is no doubt on where he stands.

Donnell Ewert, head of Shasta County’s Health and Human Services Agency, shockingly, succinctly and openly stated what most of guessed about Magrini with regard to enforcement at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting: “The sheriff has made clear his disinterest in citing those who violate the (stay at home) order.”

Folks, he’s not going to be enforcing these laws, Ewert signals, we know it, you might as well be clear on it, too.

It’s a brilliant move by Magrini. His choice not to enforce the law has gained him the kind of political attention the sheriff of a heavily conservative county can only hope for. Hand-picked by his predecessor Tom Bosenko, and appointed by the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Magrini has not yet faced an election. With his first run for office still ahead, he knows the votes he’s gathering during this pandemic will matter later.

While the title of “sheriff” might sound outdated or bumbling ( it derives from shire-reeve or shire-keeper, the oldest appointment by the British crown ), America’s sheriffs hold surprising power. In California, their role is established by the Constitution and cannot be eliminated. And they are remarkably hard to control. Unlike the police, who serve at the will of their city council and city manager, sheriffs don’t answer to their county board of supervisors, whose only recourse, should they be unhappy with their sheriff, is to limit his budget.

This means sheriffs work directly for the voters in a role that is both political and peace-keeping. And in conservative Shasta County, a stand for the constitutional rights of the people and against the dictates of liberal Governor Newsom is a pretty safe stance for a sheriff to take.

But Magrini is certainly not alone. With his recent words and actions, he joins sheriffs across the country who have taken a stand to defend what they see as the constitutional rights of their constituents, even when those rights stand in opposition to the law. Magrini’s statements, if anything, have been remarkably soft-spoken and understated in comparison to others. Example: Idaho’s Sheriff Daryl Wheeler.

Sheriffs like Wheeler, who support what they see as the constitutional rights of their citizens over the enforcement of existing law, have sometimes been referred to as “constitutional sheriffs. ” Prior to COVID-19, so-called constitutional sheriffs took stands on issues like land regulation, gun restrictions, and asset forfeiture. Some have organized under a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. (CSPOA)

I was unable to find a list of sheriffs associated with this organization but a report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) names Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey as a former member. Sheriff Lopey gained national attention when he was accused by the Hmong population in his county of organized voter intimidation. According to the SPLC, Lopey has left the CSPOA due to their increasingly extremist views. A link to the CSPOA’s enlightening “Vet Your Sheriff” survey can be found here.

Although Magrini has certainly not advertised membership in the CSPOA, and to my knowledge, has no affiliation, he speaks a remarkably similar language to that spoken by constitutional sheriffs. Discussing his decision not to enforce Governor Newsom’s stay at home order, Magrini told the Record Searchlight , “…I’m not wanting to come in and trample on your constitutional rights or take away life or liberties or things awarded to us, but we’re all partners in this together; we all live in the same community.”

Translation? Magrini, like constitutional sheriffs nationwide, will prioritize what he sees as citizens constitutional rights, above the law. At least certain kinds of citizens and their particular kinds of constitutional rights.

What do I think is most wrong with this picture? Not the concern for the constitution. Not necessarily the failure to enforce the law. Not even the uber-powerful nature of the sheriff’s position.

What’s wrong with this picture is the power it gives law enforcement to decide which laws matter, and whose constitutional rights they will choose to protect. When it comes to quality-of-life crimes, it’s usually law enforcement prioritizing the quality of life of housed citizens above that of the homeless. In the new pandemic era it’s about whether we will protect the rights of concerned mask-wearing, social-distancing citizens to not be exposed to those who do neither.

“Live and let live” seems to be the cry for freedom. “If you’re so afraid”, multiple Facebook posts rage, “then STAY HOME!” Remarkably, similar reasoning when applied to the homeless would never be considered. They don’t get to live however they want. We shouldn’t have to stay home to avoid them. We have rights to a blight-free landscape without them trampling on it with their dirty, shopping-cart-pushing existence.

I tried to picture Redding police delivering Magrini’s lines about not wanting to come in and trample on your constitutional rights or take away life or liberties, to the local homeless community, who of course, have all the same rights as any of us, but my imagination failed me.

As usual, it comes down to whose quality of life we will protect and how we will choose to protect it.

Sheriff Eric Magrini has decided; have you?

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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