I am frequently asked questions concerning the jurisdiction of various law enforcement agencies within the state; so, I thought a rundown of the various agencies and other jurisdictional questions would be in order.
First, I want to clear up the matter of traffic law. Traffic law may be enforced anywhere in the state by any officer. The alleged offense must be prosecuted in the jurisdiction in which it occurred. This is codified in 17-4-23 O.C.G.A. and has been upheld numerous times in the Court of Appeals (see State v. Gehris, 528 S.E.2d 300, 242 Ga. App. 324 (2000); Glazner v. State, 318 S.E.2d 233, 170 Ga. App. 810 (1984); Sullivan v. State, A10A2243, 11 FCDR 582 (2011) ).
UPDATE: On June 20, 2016, the Georgia Supreme Court made a ruling on the issue of custodial arrests on traffic stops made outside of the statutorily defined jurisdiction of police officers in the case of Zilke v. The State. My initial reading is that it does not prohibit such stops; it prohibits the custodial arrest by a police officer outside of their statutory jurisdiction. It seems that a citation would still be legal as would turning the suspect over to a local officer; however, I caution peace officers to seek further clarification.
Arrest warrants are typically addressed to “any peace officer” and can be executed by any peace officer within the state regardless of whether or not they are in their jurisdiction. Peace officer is the proper term that applies to all officers certified and employed under Title 35 Chapter 8 of Georgia law.
Mutual aid agreements may be instituted among agencies, and officers can be sworn in through multiple agencies as well as being deputized.
Peace officers are also citizens and may still make a citizen’s arrest when outside of their jurisdiction.
Throughout this article I will refer to all of the above as “previously excepted”.
UPDATE: HB 479 (2021) repealed and replaced Georgia’s citizen arrest law. It also made changes to the authority of municipal police officers to make arrests outside of their jurisdiction. See the bill for those specific changes.
Office of Sheriff
Note that I wrote Office of Sheriff and not Department of Sheriff. The Sheriff is a constitutional officer deriving his or her powers from Georgia’s Constitution and common law. The Sheriff’s Office is not a department of county government, and the Sheriff is not subject to the county government; a fact often lost on county governments. The Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. Sheriffs and their deputies have statewide jurisdiction.
The Sheriff is an elected position serving four year terms. Due to the elected nature of the office, the Sheriff’s Office is directly accountable to the people which it serves. Some offices are completely “at will” meaning that all employees serve completely at the discretion of the Sheriff. Others are set up so that the Sheriff appoints certain members within the organization. Either way, a new Sheriff coming into office is likely to lead to a transformation of the office; so, it is easy for the people to directly voice approval or disapproval with the service being provided by their Sheriff’s Office via the voting booth.
Every county in Georgia has a Sheriff’s Office as a constitutional requirement. The Sheriff operates the jail and provides court security as well as being responsible for serving civil papers and executing arrest warrants. A “full service” Sheriff’s Office also provides primary law enforcement within unincorporated areas of the county and may contract with municipalities to provide such services within municipalities. Whether or not a contract is in place, the Sheriff still has full jurisdiction within municipalities in his/her county. Having a contract in place simply allows for the municipality to claim that it is providing an essential service under law (discussed more in depth later). Of the 159 Sheriff’s Offices in the state, 147 are full service agencies.
County Police Departments
Twelve counties in Georgia have established county police departments which have a department head appointed by and accountable to the county government. In the counties in which such agencies exist, they assume the primary law enforcement function in unincorporated areas of the county and in municipalities by contract. County police officers only have jurisdiction within their county except as previously excepted.
The twelve counties with such agencies are Chatham, Clarke, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Dougherty, Floyd, Fulton, Glynn, Gwinnett, Henry, and Polk. (Note: I have been contacted by several readers concerning Chatham County being on this list. The Savannah Police Department and the Chatham County Police Department merged several years ago to form the Savannah Chatham Metro Police Department. As this agency operates in lieu of a full service Sheriff’s Office, I still include it on this list.)
One item of note concerning county police agencies should be mentioned here. Frank Rotondo, the Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP), in his article in the 2010 1st Quarter Newsletter of the GACP writes that a county cannot operate police services within a municipality without a service delivery agreement between the county and the municipality in place, which is in fact what the Georgia Constitution states in Article IX. So, unless such an agreement is in place, a county police agency does not have jurisdiction in municipalities within its respective county. Mr. Rotondo incorrectly argues that this applies to Sheriffs. As noted above, Sheriffs receive their duties and authority from the Georgia Constitution and not from the county government. This section of the constitution applies to agencies created by the county and not the constitutional Office of the Sheriff. Suppose a municipality does not have a police department and it has no formal contract in place with the Sheriff. Under Mr. Rotondo’s interpretation, the residents of the municipality would have no police services whatsoever as the Sheriff would not be able to provide such services to citizens within his or her county. This argument simply is neither logical nor consistent with the powers, duties, and authorities vested in the Sheriff. Furthermore, state law (15-16-10 O.C.G.A.) clarifies that the Sheriff has the same powers within incorporated municipalities as he or she does in unincorporated areas of the county.
(Author’s Note: Mr. Rotondo wrote his article in response to Senate Bill 295 introduced in the 2010 session of the Georgia General Assembly. This bill, if passed, would have prohibited municipal police agencies from operating speed detection equipment on interstate highways. Mr. Rotondo incorrectly extended this to municipal police departments not being able to enforce any traffic law or work wrecks on the interstate highways, and using this false argument that the Sheriff could not do so within city limits without a service delivery agreement in place, makes a claim that the Georgia State Patrol would then be the only agency allowed to enforce traffic laws on the interstates. This simply is not so. On top of Mr. Rontondo being wrong concerning the authorities, duties, and powers of the Sheriff, he is wrong on how the proposed bill would impact municipal agencies as the bill only deals with the operation of speed detection devices and not general traffic law enforcement or wreck investigations. I offer no opinion on SB295. I am simply addressing the legal issues raised within the article. SB295 did not pass.)
Why county police?
This is a very good question. The state constitution mandates that each county must have a Sheriff. The 12 county police agencies are a creation of their respective county commissions and are under the control of said commissions. As noted above, the Sheriff is independent of the county government. A logical examination of the question leads me to believe that the county police agencies were created so that the respective county commissions could exert control over law enforcement within the county. Whether or not the reader comes to the same conclusion as did I, such creations clearly change the direct line of accountability.
This is a double-edged sword. Whoever is in control is also the final repository for blame when things go wrong. Usually, the appointed chief is the fall guy whether or not the failure was his or her own creation.
The creation of a county police department could previously be done simply by an act of the county commission. State law now requires that the creation of such an agency must be put before the qualified electors (voters) of the county in question. If such an effort fails, the question cannot be put before the voters again until four years has passed (see 36-8-1 O.C.G.A.). It should be noted that all of the county police agencies currently in existence were created prior to the requirement of the issue being put before the voters.
Municipal Police Departments
Obviously, cities may establish their own police departments. The officers that work for such agencies only have jurisdiction within the limits of their respective municipality other than as previously excepted. Under Georgia law, municipalities must provide at least three from a list of 11 of essential services either directly or by contract in order to maintain their charter (see 36-30-7.1 O.C.G.A.). Among the list of these essential services is police service. A municipality may claim that it is providing police services by maintaining its own police department, or it may contract with the Sheriff’s Office or county police department (should one exist) to provide police services within the municipality. The Sheriff’s Office may patrol and answer calls within a municipality without such a contract in place, but the municipality cannot claim this as providing an essential service.
Municipal agencies are typically headed by a chief of police who is appointed by and directly accountable to the municipal government. As to who in the municipal government appoints the chief and to whom the chief directly reports will depend upon the structure of the particular government in question.
Yes, I said constables. Georgia law (15-10-110 through 116 O.C.G.A.) still allows for the appointment of constables. According to the Georgia Civil Process Association’s web page the following counties have constables in service: Ben Hill, Effingham, Fayette, Gordon, Lee, McDuffie, Spalding, Sumpter, and Whitfield. According the Lowndes County Magistrate Court’s web page, Lowndes also has constables. I do not know if this is an exhaustive list. Constables may be created by local legislation of a county’s governing authority, and they are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the chief magistrate of the county. They have the power to execute warrants, summons and returns, etc of the magistrate court. They may only arrest with a warrant or by direction of and in the presence of a judge. Constables are not peace officers under Georgia law (they are in some other states). Constables may be substituted with marshals, which leads us to…
Unlike constables, marshals may be peace officers. The actual function and peace officer status of marshals varies depending on the agency. In some places such as Fulton County, marshals are full-fledged peace officers with the power to enforce traffic laws and make arrest (substitute for constables as described above). Richmond and Muskogee Counties also have marshals which are sworn officers. Please keep in mind that the examples provided are not an exhaustive list. In other places, marshals are code enforcement officers or similar. They can issue citations for code violations and the like, but they do not have arrest powers. Furthermore, both municipalities and counties may appoint and employ marshals.
Campus police agencies and their legal authority vary depending upon the type of institution to which they belong. For instance, there are differences between campus agencies of units of the University System of Georgia (USG) versus that of a private college, and the legal authority of school board police agencies differ as well. Campus agencies also tend to vary as to how proactive they are. Agencies on college campuses typically are answerable to the institution’s administration whereas agencies of a school system are typically answerable to the respective school board.
The authorities and definition of a campus and its officers as they relate to educational institutions are found in 20-8-1 O.C.G.A. This applies to both public and private institutions. Campus officers have jurisdiction on the actual property of their institution and 500 yards in any direction from that property. A campus officer may go off campus to investigate a crime that occurred within his or her jurisdiction, and as they are peace officers that fall into the all of “previously excepted” categories I listed above.
Units of the University System of Georgia (USG) may establish police departments that are answerable to the president (or designee) of the respective institution. These agencies have original jurisdiction on any property owned, leased, or under the control of the Board of Regents and 500 yards in any direction (see 20-3-72 O.C.G.A.) from said property. These officers are peace officers. As stated previously, as sworn officers they may enforce traffic law or execute warrants anywhere in the state. If executing a search warrant off campus, they are required by state law to have a local officer present (17-5-21 (d) O.C.G.A.)
Please note that in the above paragraph that the jurisdiction is based on property of the Board of Regents and not the respective institution alone. This means that officers from one USG institution have full jurisdiction on the campus and property belonging to other USG institutions. If you happen to frequent UGA football games, you may have seen officers from other USG institutions working at the games. They have the same legal authority as do the UGA officers on the UGA campus.
Georgia Military College (GMC) is unique in that it is a public college, but it is not part of the University System of Georgia.
The jurisdiction of a campus agency belonging to a private college or university is the same as that of an officer working for a public institution; however, they are limited to the campus of their respective institution (see 20-8-1 O.C.G.A.). Of note in law on private institutions is that in order to extend jurisdiction off campus for 500 yards as do the University System of Georgia institutions, the population of the county in which the institution is located must 400,000 or more residents. It is my opinion that 17-4-23 O.C.G.A. would apply.
Under 20-8-5 O.C.G.A., local boards of education may establish police departments with full police jurisdictions at their facilities and properties.
State of Georgia
The Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS) is made up of the Georgia State Patrol (GSP), the Capitol Police, and the Motor Carrier Compliance Division (MCCD), which is primarily concerned with commercial vehicle issues. The DPS is headed by a Commissioner appointed by the Governor. The Commissioner carries the rank of Colonel.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) is headed by a Director that is appointed by the Governor. Contrary to what many people think, the GBI does not have blanket original jurisdiction statewide; however, there are a few specific areas such as drugs and fraud where the GBI may exert original jurisdiction. Other than those instances, in order for the GBI to become involved in a local case they must be requested to do so by the head of a law enforcement agency, a prosecutor, or the head of a local governing authority. The GBI investigates all in-custody deaths and has original jurisdiction on state property, and it operates the crime labs.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employs Conservation Rangers (game wardens) as part of the Wildlife Resources Division to enforce wildlife, environmental, boating and other state and federal laws. They are full-fledge certified peace officers with state-wide jurisdiction. The Parks, Recreation, and Historic Sites Division also employees Rangers, but these rangers are may or may not be POST certified peace officers. The Governor appoints members of the Board of Natural Resources which oversees the DNR.
There are a myriad of POST certified officers working for the state; so, I focused primarily on those agencies for which the average citizen is likely to encounter. There are many certified officers/agents that work in administrative capacities in which interaction with the general public is limited. Some examples are investigators that look into food stamp fraud or revenue agents investigating tax issues. Some of the licensing boards, the Secretary of State, the Agriculture Commissioner, and others also have POST certified investigators that investigate issues relating to professional licenses or fraud. There are also numerous state run buildings that have facility police on the grounds. An example of this would be state run mental health hospitals. Furthermore, there are parole officers and probation officers. Trying to a compile a comprehensive list would be daunting.
MARTA police officers are certified and sworn peace officers. According to Assistant Chief Joseph Dorsey of the MARTA Police, they have county-wide jurisdiction in Fulton and DeKalb Counties including the municipalities contained therein. They are primarily responsible for police services on rail lines, stations, and buses.