When we think of a Sheriff, most of us tend to think of the Wild West and for good reasons. Early 1950s movies made icons of lawmen like Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp, who made their reputations with their guns.
John Wayne made a slew of movies where he either played a sheriff or marshal, and some movies where he actually exposed the sheriff as a crook. These films usually showed the evil banker, who holds the mortgage on the ranch, and his accomplices who steal the cattle and then foreclose on the property, sometimes with the help of a corrupt judge because the rancher cannot pay. Normally, the reason is because the railroad is coming through and all these corrupt individuals are looking to cash in at someone else's expense. It appears that some things have not changed all that much.
The word sheriff is a contraction of two words, shire and reeve. Prior to the Norman invasion of England, the King appointed someone, usually a lord, to be the chief legal official - the Reeve - of each shire. This person had the responsibility to keep the peace, collect the taxes and sometimes settle legal disputes between parties. As the English language evolved the title became Sheriff.
When Great Britain first colonized the North American continent the separate colonies appointed their own sheriffs to uphold the law. After the American Revolution the sheriff became an elected position. The Sheriff, in most cases, is the highest law enforcement officer in his county and has control of the county prison system.
In the northeastern U.S., the Sheriff does not normally have to be the law enforcement arm. They are responsible for prisoner transport and for serving warrants and writs. State Police and city police forces take care of the law enforcement. However, in southern and western states, where there are fewer big cities, less population and more territory to cover, the Sheriff plays a more important role.
The Orange County Florida Sheriff's Office is a perfect example of a modern day operation. It counts 2400 uniformed, non-uniformed and clerical employees for 1,000,000 residents and 45,000,000 tourists annually. They patrol the entire county, as many of the Orange County municipalities are too small to have their own police force. They have criminal, investigative, undercover, narcotics, and civil process units and act as any large municipal police force with the added responsibility of running the county prison system, serving writs and handling a number of civil duties.
It took almost a month to get a hold of Lieutenant Robert Corriveau at the Orange County Florida Sheriff's Office. Corriveau looks like he played fullback in the pros. He is solidly built and rugged with a mustache that is beginning to turn gray. He's been in law enforcement for 27 years, 25 of them in Orange County. For many years he was a street officer and spent time in the Drug Enforcement division.
I first asked him to tell me exactly what his department does. He named a series of duties including transporting prisoners, extraditions, serving the writs of possession and intervening in domestic disputes, all within the jurisdiction of the courts. His division does not choose what actions to take; it is ordered to do so by the courts.
I then asked him how he felt about the record number of evictions in which his division participated. In 2001, Lieutenant Corriveau's office handled less than 1,000 eviction orders, by 2008 that number had increased to 10,243. Figures for Jan-Feb 2009 are even higher, reaching 1,980 for the two month period.
Corriveau's answer was that it is not pleasant and that no one in the department looks forward to it. But he also added that it is part of the job and that it needs to be done. He emphasized that the Sheriff is a public servant who is an impartial third party: he therefore acts under court order, not under the authority of the landlord or the mortgage company, and he is there to insure the orderly transfer of possession.
Corriveau later arranged for me to travel with Master Deputy Stan Spanich during his shift, so that I could get a feel for what his department does.
Spanich was dressed in gray slacks and dark blue plaid sport shirt just like any other civilian, but the nine-millimeter automatic and the handcuffs on his hip made his status clear. The man could be a stand-in double for Governor Crist. As we were riding his late model Chevy Impala, he explained that he had been a policeman for 35 years. A native of Chicago, he spent 15 years on the force there as a street cop and in other units including narcotics, investigations and a stint as a mounted policeman. He has been in Central Florida for 20 years and in the civil division for 5 years. During the day, he proved to work strictly by the book and to be a gentleman at all times.
His territory covers Orange County West of John Young Parkway to Lake County and south of US Route 50 to Osceola County. It is a large territory that encompasses wealthy communities like Windermere, as well as the Universal Studios, the Greater Orlando Convention area and Sea World. That day, he had 22 postings that included some evictions and notices to vacate. But Spanich expects things to get busier soon due to the lifting of the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae moratoriums.
Our day started off at the upscale Northbridge Apartments, a large complex that boasts a few Orlando Magic players and other personalities that you would assume to be able to afford the rent. Some people, however, have fallen on harder times and have fallen behind.
Spanich had three final notice postings in this complex, which means that either he or one of the unit's process servers had already been there. Once this notice has been posted, he will return within 72 hours to assure that the tenant has vacated. He also leaves his secret mark on the door - which I will not divulge - to avoid any tenant's claim that they were never notified.
At every complex we visited, every security guard and maintenance man called him by his first name, a sign that he had probably been in these places quite a few times.
The only foreclosure eviction Spanich had that day was at a complex where there are apartments as well as condos. The tenant had been paying on time every month, but the owner was not making the mortgage payments and this was the day that she had to vacate.
A property management firm was there to change the locks. However, the tenant was not fully moved out and needed some more time. Spanich intervened and diplomatically convinced the representative to give her some extra time. There was no screaming, no histrionics and no pressure. In this case, there had been a lengthy legal proceeding and the tenant had found another place to live. Spanich felt satisfied that it worked out.
He told me a funny story that had happened to him about a month before during an eviction. As the tenant was vacating the 3,000,000.00 properties where he was living, he told Spanich, "I just can't afford the $14,000.00 per month rent anymore." Well, some people have their priorities.
I asked Spanich what he would do if anyone ever refused to vacate. He answered that he would have to warn them that if they do not vacate he would arrest them. He added that it had never happened to him in the civil division and that he had never had to draw his weapon in a domestic situation.
When pressed about ACORN's home defenders, Spanich said that he would do what is necessary when faced with that situation, and that he obviously would not act on his own. He hopes that the situation will never arise.
The further north we traveled, the poorer the areas looked. There were smaller units with no swimming pools or tennis courts as in the units further south.
A few people had already abandoned before the final notice was put up, however, in one complex two people scheduled for final notice had actually paid the back rent, late charges and court fees and were not leaving. This brought a smile of satisfaction to Spanich's face.