I Caught the Sheriff: Why U.S. Anticorruption Officials Should Keep an Eye on Sheriffs

An unusual feature of US law enforcement is the important role of the county sheriff. As of 2013, over 3,000 sheriffs’ offices across 47 U.S. states employed 352,000 people—roughly one-third of the country’s law enforcement personnel. The sheriff’s job varies from state-to-state, but the common denominator is responsibility over county corrections, including the operation of jails and transportation of inmates to and from court. In some states—Massachusetts, for instance—that’s essentially the extent of sheriffs’ duties. In other states, though, sheriffs wield much broader authority. Texas sheriffs, for example, can enforce the state’s criminal laws anywhere in their county, even where municipal police departments have jurisdiction. Most states are somewhere in the middle, tasking sheriffs with general law enforcement duties only in unincorporated parts of the county and sometimes with security for state government buildings, in addition to their correctional responsibilities.

Despite the variety of roles played by sheriffs, many commentators view sheriffs as merely another kind of police. After all, they wear badges, can legally use force, and, in many parts of the country, patrol the beat. But sheriffs are distinct from their police counterparts in significant respects. Most notably, whereas police chiefs are appointed by city officials, sheriffs are popularly elected by the county they serve. And, unlike police departments, which are creatures of state statute, the responsibilities of a county sheriff are often rooted in the state constitution.

These differences render sheriffs more susceptible than police to corruption for three reasons:

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Where Should U.S. State Governments Put Their Anticorruption Agencies?

As other contributors on this blog have argued, U.S. states should assume a greater role in investigating and prosecuting corruption crimes, rather than leaving anticorruption enforcement efforts entirely to the federal government. But the call for a greater state role in anticorruption naturally invites a follow-up question: which office or unit within the state government should have principal responsibility for anticorruption? For starters, should the state have a specialized unit dedicated to investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes? And if so, where within the state government should that unit be located?

There are a range of potential answers to these questions. A 50-state survey from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) finds that although the vast majority of states have some kind of anticorruption commission, roughly half have no specialized anticorruption unit dedicated to investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes. States that do have such units house them in one of three places: (1) the state attorney general’s office, (2) local prosecutors’ offices, or (3) the state police.

State Unit Dedicated to Prosecuting Corruption?

Source: Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School

Having a specialized unit to prosecute corruption promotes the development of the expertise critical to successfully prosecuting corruption cases. Maintaining specialized anticorruption units also ensures resources are dedicated specifically to combating corruption, fosters norms of (and a reputation for) impartiality, and enhances deterrence by increasing officials’ perception that they’ll get caught if they do something wrong. But where a specialized anticorruption unit is located within state government affects the degree to which these benefits will be realized. In this respect, the three models of current state practice, as discussed in the CAPI survey and illustrated in the above map, differ along two dimensions: (1) the level of government (state or local); and (2) the nature of the law enforcement agency (prosecutors or police). An examination of both dimensions indicates that state-level prosecutors—state attorneys general—are best-equipped to house specialized anticorruption units.

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The Stream of Benefits Theory of Bribery Doesn’t Criminalize Ordinary Politics

Bribery of a public official can take one of at least two forms. In the most straightforward case, a public official accepts a one-off bribe in exchange for a particular official act. This kind of one-to-one exchange is illustrated by a recent case out of Puerto Rico, in which a territorial senator agreed to a direct trade: he would support legislation favorable to a local businessman’s security company, and in return he would receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas. Things aren’t always so neat, however. Sometimes bribery involves a series of gifts to a public official in exchange for a series of official acts, and seldom do these gifts and official acts line up in a one-to-one fashion. An example of this kind of bribery can be seen in a recent case out of Texas, where, over an extended period of time, a local developer provided a town mayor cash, home renovations, hotel stays, airline upgrades, and even employment, and the mayor repeatedly voted for zoning changes that ultimately allowed a developer to build apartments.

Anticorruption officials in the United States prosecute the latter form of bribery under a “stream of benefits” theory of liability. Rather than requiring prosecutors to demonstrate tit-for-tat trades—in which a specific “thing of value” is offered or exchanged for a specific official act—under the stream of benefits theory unlawful bribery has also occurred when the prosecution can show a “course of conduct of favors and gifts flowing to a public official in exchange for a pattern of official actions favorable to the donor.” Some courts and commentators have described the idea as the briber regularly paying the public official to keep her “on retainer” with the expectation that she will help the briber out as opportunities arise. The stream of benefits theory recognizes that most bribes aren’t one-off trades of a thing of value for a particular official act. Instead, bribery often takes place in the context of a long-term, multifaceted relationship where there’s a general understanding along the lines of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Where gifts flow regularly to the official and the official occasionally acts for the benefit of the gift-giver, it would be difficult for prosecutors to prove that any particular gift instigated a particular official act. But as then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor once reasoned: “[A] reading of the [bribery] statute that excluded such schemes would legalize some of the most pervasive and entrenched corruption, and cannot be what Congress intended.” Accordingly, the stream of benefits theory has been approved by every federal circuit court that has ruled on the issue.

Yet despite the stream of benefits theory’s intuitive appeal, it has recently come under attack. Most prominently, a federal judge threatened to derail the trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez before it began by questioning the theory’s continued validity in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in the McDonnell case (which, as explained in more detail below, adopted a strict interpretation of what constitutes an “official act” under the U.S. bribery statute). Although the judge in the Menendez case ultimately determined that the stream of benefits theory was still good law, many commentators aren’t so sure. The Cato Institute, for one, speculates that McDonnell’s strict reading of the bribery statute requires the identification of a specific official act to be performed, rather than accepting as adequate the promise of future, undefined official acts in the briber’s favor. Others, like Professor Randall Eliason, argue that the Supreme Court already (albeit implicitly) rejected the stream of benefits theory on those grounds in a 1999 case called Sun-Diamond.

These attacks reflect a broader policy concern: fear that overly broad bribery statutes criminalize ordinary politics. Professor Albert Alschuler, for instance, asserts that the “principal danger” with the stream of benefits theory is that it “invites slippage” from a “quid pro quo requirement” to a “favoritism” standard. Favoritism, he argues, is endemic in politics––a politician will naturally favor allies and stakeholders who have supported him politically (and financially). Criminalizing favoritism is akin to criminalizing innocent political conduct, which, in turn, has far-reaching secondary effects, such as deterring good people from government service and giving prosecutors too much power to enforce the law selectively. The Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell, though technically on a different issue, also expressed worries about how a “boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute” could wind up criminalizing ordinary politics.

These fears are overblown. As other commentators have persuasively argued, the stream of benefits theory remains viable, and has not been expressly or implicitly repudiated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell, Sun-Diamond, or elsewhere. (See, for example, here and, on this blog, here.) I agree, but my main argument here concerns the detractors’ underlying policy concern. Put simply: the stream of benefits theory doesn’t criminalize ordinary politics.

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