Genesee County sheriff: 'Don't expect us' to enforce state pandemic orders

The Detroit News

The Genesee County sheriff suggested Friday his department would not aggressively enforce statewide stay-home orders amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Sheriff Chris Swanson appeared during journalist Charlie LeDuff's "No BS News Hour" broadcast from American Coney Island in downtown Detroit. The show was posted on its Facebook page.

Swanson, a Democrat, and State Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, both discussed issues related to the pandemic, including care of jail inmates and nursing facilities. 

At one point, the show featured news clips about Karl Manke, the Owosso barber who has defied Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders keeping nonessential businesses closed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. This week, state officials temporarily suspended his license after the 77-year-old kept working. 

Manke's shop is in Shiawassee County. Its sheriff, Brian Begole, has said his department will not enforce Whitmer's directives.

LeDuff, a former Detroit News reporter, asked Swanson, whose county neighbors Shiawassee, if the sheriff would enforce them.

"First, you know, people have to talk about the Constitution in its entirety. And that’s the separation of powers," Swanson told him. "And the sheriff is the executive branch of that separation. We enforce laws — with discretion, remember that."

The sheriff went on to say: "It is dangerous for police officers to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Otherwise I could look at Lafayette (Boulevard in Detroit) and say: 'You know, by the order of the sheriff, I don’t agree with the speed limit. Go as fast as you want.' I can’t do that. But what I can do is say: 'I’m not going to park cars there and pull over everybody going one (mph) over.' I tell this to my people in Genesee County, because I have seen people and I have seen people on the nursing side... the business side, they’re dying. We have not raided a business. We have not shut a business down. We’re not pulling people over. We’re not writing tickets. And don’t expect us to do it.”

Swanson could not immediately be reached for comment Friday night.

Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson

Other county sheriffs across the state have taken similar stances and said they would not enforce the orders. They include Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy, who has said he will not enforce the governor’s order in part because of the uncertain legality of the emergency extension past April 30, which GOP legislative leaders have argued is no longer valid. 

An association representing prosecuting attorneys across Michigan said Thursday the executive orders are still in effect and enforceable even without an emergency extension by the state Legislature. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Thursday the guidance should serve as confirmation of the orders for law enforcement who "have questioned their ability to enforce the governor's order."

“I join the county prosecutors in hoping that the court brings clarity to these issues soon," she said. "In the meantime, I stand with them as we work with local communities to overcome the challenges and hardships presented by COVID-19.”