The COVID-19 crisis has spurred a growth in constitutional sheriffs across the country. Many of them have equated government-enacted health guidelines regarding masks and vaccines with tyranny. Fringe sheriffs from across the country have refused to enforce the rules inside their county lines.
Some of the sheriffs who declined to enforce these laws are constitutional sheriffs. Others who took this step were spurred on and recruited by antigovernment extremists who spent 2021 exploiting the pandemic for their own ideological purposes, most notably the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA).
Throughout 2021, CSPOA held seminars and trainings meant to radicalize the sheriffs into believing they have ultimate U.S. law enforcement authority and are, as CSPOA presents it to them through online and in-person presentations, “America’s last hope.”
Over three dozen sheriffs attended an event hosted by CSPOA and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in The Woodlands, Texas, from Feb. 26-27, 2021. “We promise they will not leave the same,” CSPOA’s leader former sheriff Richard Mack said of the event during a Feb. 23 interview on the right-wing online show “American Journal” that was rebroadcast to Infowars.
Mack went on a speaking junket in 2021, promoting the organization at a series of events alongside a long list of extremists. This included Red Pill Expo, a who’s who of antigovernment figures hosted by well-known conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin, a QAnon sovereign citizen rally in Hawaii, the Rod of Iron Ministries Freedom Festival and the Arise USA tour, hosted by the late antisemitic conspiracy theorist Robert David Steele where Mack was a speaker and CSPOA’s name was emblazoned on the side of the tour bus.
A new national constitutional sheriff’s group also emerged in 2021. The product of Republican political consultant Nathan Sproul, Protect America Now, incorporated in Phoenix, Arizona, as a domestic non-profit corporation on June 26, 2020. The group has an advisory board with a host of constitutional sheriffs.
The group includes Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, whom Mack personally endorsed saying, “Yes, Sheriff Lamb is a Constitutional Sheriff and is one of the best sheriffs in America”; Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard, Florida, and Sheriff Jesse Watts of Eureka, Nevada, who have both self-identified as constitutional sheriffs; and Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper, Virginia, who spoke at the 2020 CSPOA Conference at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Also in the group is Sheriff Tom Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, who joined CSPOA in 2014 and had his ICE agreement terminated on May 20, 2021 for alleged mistreatment of detainees at the immigrant detention center managed by Hodgson.
Constitutional sheriffs will continue to confuse personal and political beliefs with constitutionality, using their elected positions as law enforcement officers to pick and choose what laws they will enforce based upon these preferences.
More sheriffs may become radicalized because of the number of constitutional sheriffs and antigovernment groups intent on evangelizing to sheriffs about constitutional sheriff and conspiracy theory ideologies, which are often related.
Counties experiencing rampant disinformation, including conspiracy theories that villainize the government, may be supportive of sheriffs who proclaim that they will not enforce laws they personally interpret as the product of a tyrannical government.
The concept of the constitutional sheriff is a subset of the larger antigovernment movement. Its origins are in the American county supremacy movement, which includes two concepts that often work in tandem. One is that county government should have control of all the land within its borders, taking this power away from the state and federal government. The other is focused on the role of the county sheriff, who they believe has ultimate law enforcement authority in the United States.
This idea was pioneered by Christian identity minister William Potter Gale in the 1970s as Posse Comitatus, which is Latin for the power of the county.
Gale promoted the formation of citizens militias, making the claim “that all healthy men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five who were not in the military could be mobilized into a posse comitatus to redress their grievances,” according to the book Aryan Cowboys: White Supremacists and the Search for a New Frontier, 1970-2000.
Citizens could either volunteer or be called up by their county sheriff, who Gale believed was the “only legal law enforcement officer” in the country.
His beliefs were disseminated far and wide. Henry Lamont “Mike” Beach of Oregon is alleged to have stolen Gale’s writings and used them to start a national “Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus” organization, which claimed the federal government overstepped their authority under the constitution and the posse could remove them from office and hang them.
Gale’s views, some parroted by Beach, grew in popularity among white supremacists, tax protesters and aggrieved citizens, such as farmers in the Midwest who faced significant financial crisis in the 1980s.
They were also pivotal to the formation of the modern constitutional sheriff, militia and sovereign citizen movements, all of whom distrust or detest the government.
Mack was so heavily influenced by the events at Ruby Ridge that he contributed to a book written by Randy Weaver, the white supremacist who provoked the standoff with the government. Mack wrote the foreword for Weaver’s book Vicki, Sam, and America: How the Government Killed All Three.
Mack is a former Graham County, Arizona, sheriff and a former Oath Keepers board member. He has previously declared that the “greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our own federal government.”
CSPOA is an extremist group which espouses similar rhetoric to Gale and Beach. The group endeavors to radicalize county sheriffs across America into believing they are the ultimate law enforcement authority, able to enforce, ignore or break state and federal law as they choose.
On Apr. 1, 2014, Mack told Lou Dobbs, “this really is a badge vs. the badge situation, and I believe that the biggest badge in the country is the county sheriff.”
CSPOA claims this is because county sheriffs are the only elected law enforcement officers and therefore only accountable to their constituents, no higher government power. In a May 2020 interview posted to YouTube, Mack described this view, saying: “Let me make this real clear: The President of the United States cannot tell your sheriff what to do. I don’t care if its George Washington himself, they cannot tell us what to do.”
The group justifies this by declaring that constitutional sheriffs are “upholding and defending the constitution.”
By endorsing the idea that sheriffs can choose which U.S. laws are legitimate, constitutional sheriffs are conferring a job assigned to the Supreme Court by the nation’s founders onto themselves.
Whereas Supreme Court justices are often fervent legal scholars, the Montgomery County, Texas, sheriff’s office, which held a constitutional sheriff event in February 2021, requires their sheriff to be:
- A U.S. citizen.
- A county resident.
- At least 18 years of age.
- Registered to vote.
- Never been convicted of a felony (with a few caveats).
- Not partially or totally mentally incapacitated.
There is no requirement that a sheriff reads or understands the Constitution.
Despite their effort to usurp the role of the Supreme Court, Mack has spent many hours praising the court for its decision in the case Printz v. United States, which made him a quasi-celebrity among antigovernment extremists.
The case was brought by Mack and Ravalli County Sheriff/Coroner Jay Printz, who argued against a provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which would have required Chief Law Enforcement Agents to conduct background checks until a national system was implemented. The Supreme Court sided with Mack and Printz on June 27, 1997, determining that the Constitution did not impel state officers to carry out federal duties without their consent.
As Mack tells it, he “said the federal Government could not tell him what to do; that they were not his boss.”
This posse comitatus based rallying cry continues to be the primary theme that permeates the ideology of CSPOA and other constitutional sheriffs across America.
Beginning in 2013, numerous sheriffs and county officials refused to enforce future gun control laws. Constitutional sheriffs and the CSPOA were involved in many of these efforts, using gun control to further their own agendas of radicalization and recruitment.
These efforts were in reaction to public calls for increased gun control measures after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater on July 12, 2012, and another at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012.
In 2013, CSPOA publicly distributed a list with the names of over 400 county sheriffs making the claim that these particular sheriffs would not enforce any new gun laws.
Around the same time, county officials began passing Second Amendment sanctuary legislation, most of which affirmed that additional state and federal gun control laws would not be enforced by the county.
This movement picked up exponentially after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018, along with the sheriffs’ involvement. Multiple county sheriffs wrote the language for or publicly supported these laws. Constitutional Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper, Virginia, said he would deputize the citizens in his county if gun control laws were passed. “Every Sheriff and Commonwealth Attorney in Virginia will see the consequences if our General Assembly passes further unnecessary gun restrictions,” Jenkins said.
One county law, titled the Newton County Missouri Second Amendment Preservation Act was enacted in Newton County, on Feb. 3, 2021. It declares, “Any and all federal agents trying to enforce the regulations” as they had stipulated “shall be subject to arrest by the Newton County Missouri Sheriff’s Department.”
When asked about this particular act during an interview, Mack expressed that he loved it and said, “Let’s all follow Newton County’s example.” This illustrates the potential danger of these laws. Although many of the measures are legally toothless, if they are used in conjunction with constitutional sheriffs refusing to carry out their law enforcement authority, or assuming jurisdiction over state or federal agents, it creates a challenge to the U.S. rule of law itself.
This issue became more evident in 2021 when constitutional sheriffs, including CSPOA, began to oppose state and federal COVID-19 health.
Mack compared sheriffs who refused to enforce the stay-at-home orders to civil rights activist Rosa Parks and claimed a sheriff who refused to enforce his own state’s executive order was standing against Nazi tactics.
Constitutional sheriff Dar Leaf of Barry County, Michigan, openly defied his governor’s stay-at-home orders – as did constitutional sheriff Mike Carpinelli of Lewis County, New York. “Carpinelli says at the end of the day, it’s about respecting each other and each other’s boundaries when it comes to concerns about the virus. As reported by WWNY, that responsibility and those boundaries, he says, should be set by people, not local law enforcement.”
CSPOA lifetime member and constitutional sheriff Bob Songer of Klickitat, Washington, forwarded an email from Mack to multiple Washington sheriffs titled “You Swore and Oath to Our Constitution” where he claimed, “No Governor’s proclamations order can override your liberties without violating your constitutional rights even during a crisis.” Songer’s stance remained the same even after he was hospitalized for five days with COVID-19.
Gov. Jay Inslee struck back at Washington state law enforcement officers such Songer in a press conference on April 22, 2020: “Whatever talents they have they just are not given the right in our democracy to make a decision about the constitution. That is a decision we leave to the courts. We cannot have individual law enforcement officers arbitrarily decide what laws to enforce.”
In addition to defiance over coronavirus laws, Songer, along with constitutional sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, formed their own sheriffs posses. Songer has said posse members are meant to be trained witnesses. Some members who are on horseback are meant to attend crime scenes and searches, as well as hunt their county’s cougar population. Those without horses are auxiliary, according to Songer. Lamb called his posse, created in 2020, a citizen’s academy but said they are also a resource “should we need them.” In December 2020, Lamb gave an update on Facebook about the posse, telling the audience that hundreds of people had graduated from the training and he was “looking forward to getting a lot more of you in there and getting you trained as well.”
Leaf invoked posse comitatus in a Facebook post on Aug. 2, 2021, declaring that a sheriff’s posse was necessary to suppress rioting. Leaf, who has been openly friendly to militia in the past and questioned whether the men charged with kidnapping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan were actually attempting a legal citizen’s arrest, claimed in the post that “the Posse’ and Militia have more lawful character than the agencies that have recently arrested the Militia.” Leaf is also associated with the sovereign citizen National Liberty Alliance.
Gale’s legacy of linking constitutional sheriffs to other members of the far right has lived on – with not only Leaf but also a bevy of current and former sheriffs. Lamb, along with Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard, Florida, Sheriff Jesse Watts of Eureka, Nevada, Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper, Virginia and Sheriff Tom Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, are advisers to the group Protect America Now, which has been linked to anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
Lamb was also a confirmed speaker at sovereign citizen group RidersUSA’s seventh annual Second Amendment event, which was held in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 15, 2020. It was attended by the Proud Boys and anti-immigrant group AZ Patriots.
Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers National Operations Director Sam Bushman owns Liberty News Radio, which produces his own show “Liberty Roundtable,” where he has hosted antigovernment figures such as Stewart Rhodes, Scott Bradley of Freedom Rising Sun and members of the John Birch Society. Bushman’s network also syndicates the white nationalist radio show “Political Cesspool,” hosted by James Edwards and Keith Alexander, which has invited numerous guests from the white nationalist and neo-confederate movements.
Mack has been associated with a long list of extremists. He considers Randy Weaver a friend, asserting that Weaver is not a bigot, just a separatist “in a way” who does not believe in interracial marriage.
He also held a spot on the board of directors of the nationwide Oath Keepers militia group until 2015. In 2014, Mack participated in the Bundy standoff against the U.S. government, in Bunkerville, Nevada, alongside his fellow Oath Keepers and additional militias. That year, Mack shared their strategy with Fox News: “We were actually strategizing to put all the women and children up front. If they are going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.”
In 2018, Mack attended RidersUSA’s fifth annual Second Amendment event. Posting photos to his Facebook page with the caption, “Riders USA hosted the “Protect the 2nd Amendment Rally Today, and I was glad to be with both them and my longtime friends at Oath Keepers.”
The Constitutional Law group run by a non-attorney sovereign citizen who spent time during the pandemic offering his services as an attorney to businesses defying COVID-19 health guidelines listed CSPOA as a sponsor on their website and claimed to be working closely with CSPOA.
In 2021, Mack went on the ARISE USA Tour hosted by late antisemitic conspiracy theorist Robert David Steele. On May 15, 2021, the tour stopped in Lander County, Nevada, where the county commission voted to become CSPOA lifetime members and held a “Patriotic Social Gathering.” The audience consisted of locals, Nevada constitutional sheriffs, anti-vaccine groups and multiple militias, one with a recruiting booth set up. All of them, including the sheriffs and militias, seemed to be associating with and friendly with each other, according to a person at the scene.
2021 Constitutional Sheriff Groups
*Asterisk denotes headquarters
Protect America Now
Idaho Constitutional Sheriffs
Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association