New Bern, NC – INTRO - A recent spate of felons who ran for sheriff offices in North Carolina has prompted a constitutional amendment to be placed on the November ballot. George Olsen has more.
During the May primary six convicted felons ran in sheriff's elections. This included a former Washington County sheriff who served two months in prison for embezzlement and former Davidson County Sheriff Gerald Hege (HAYG-ee) who pled guilty to two counts of felony obstruction of justice. None of them got past the primary but the flurry of felons trying to get top law enforcement jobs prompted a flurry of its own General Assembly activity to keep it from happening again.
"I really think that when our forefathers, when they drew the constitution of N-C, they didn't anticipate that folks committed of high crimes would run for sheriff, they didn't think anyone would do that, but unfortunately we've had several and it looks like its increasing, so hopefully we can take care of that this year."
Dan Ingle represents Alamance County in the state House. He was a primary sponsor of a House bill advocating a constitutional amendment to ban felons from running for sheriff. His bill ultimately wasn't successful but the first-term Republican is backing a similar bill sponsored by Democrat Ronnie Sutton that did receive House & Senate approval requiring that an amendment to the state Constitution barring felons from running for sheriff be voted on by the electorate. The amendment would rule anyone ineligible for office who "has been convicted of a felony against this State, the United States, or another state, whether or not that person has been restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law." Ingle, who served as Chief of Police for the town of Elon for 18 years, voiced as a primary concern the fact a sheriff with a felony conviction could not carry a gun and therefore couldn't effectively back up deputies in a crisis situation.
"They could be expected to or relied upon to have that weapon to as a back-up to the person that works for them. To me this is the one office that definitely because of that one point, that a felon can't carry a gun, they definitely don't need to run for the office if they can't function in their job."
"On the face of it, I agree. I'm not too keen on felons being sheriff either."
Barbara Howe is chair of the state Libertarian Party. As she just said, she might agree with the sentiment of the proposed amendment, but her party is not going to advocate for it.
"You shouldn't amend the constitution willy-nilly every time somebody gets a thought in their head this is a bad idea and a lot of this came about because of a particular sheriff in Davidson County who got convicted of a felony and then proclaimed he would run again. Directing a whole constitutional amendment at one person seems a silly thing to do."
The Libertarian Party points to the number of things that are considered felonies in the state Howe says she's probably committed felonies and never knew it and that people do stupid things while young but grow up and become productive citizens. But even beyond those points, Howe points out that if you look at the results of the 2010 primary, barring felons from running for sheriff may not even be necessary.
"This is another classic example of the General Assembly thinking voters are stupid. A person running for office is not going to be able to hide the fact they are a felon. I think it's even on the form you have to fill out to run for office, so give the voters the option of saying this guy is a good sheriff candidate or not, don't automatically preclude a person on the felony count. It played out very well in the primary this spring."
The constitutional amendment providing that no person convicted of a felony may serve as sheriff is currently on the General Election ballot. If voters approve, it will be effective immediately upon vote certification by the Secretary of State. I'm George Olsen.