Lancaster County Sheriff Chris Leppler said in a statement last week that his office would not enforce Gov. Tom Wolf’s August order requiring students and teachers to wear masks in schools -- a policy the sheriff's office has no direct role in enforcing.
In a statement posted to his office's Facebook account and website, Leppler wrote that Pennsylvania's public health law does not give the governor the authority to issue such an order because it does not specifically mention COVID-19, and "is does not give the Department of Health the ability to issue orders to non-infected persons for infections or outbreaks that have not yet occurred."
He continued, “It is my position, as Sheriff of Lancaster County, that the ‘School Mask Order’ is not law, not a valid order, and it cannot be legally enforced. Accordingly, my Office will not enforce this Order in any manner.”
Last year, Leppler issued a declaration stating that his deputies would not enforce any of the governor's COVID-19 edicts and questioned the constitutionality of quarantine orders.
A sheriff's duties
In Pennsylvania, a sheriff’s responsibility is mainly serving local courts -- providing security at the county courthouse, serving civil process documents and warrants, seizing and storing weapons as orders by the court, and managing sales of foreclosed homes, among other duties.
Unlike in other states, sheriffs in Pennsylvania do not play a traditional law enforcement role. Deputies have the authority to make arrests for breaches of the peace, issue citations for traffic violations and may assist other law enforcement agencies upon request, according to Leppler’s official website, but the listed duties do not mention schools. Nor does the Sheriff’s office have deputies assigned to schools.
Leppler did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon, nor did a representative with the Pennsylvania Sheriff’s Association.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has limited sheriffs’ authoritiy over the years. In a 1991 decision limiting a deputy’s ability to make arrests at traffic stops, Judge Donald Weiand noted that sheriffs no longer fill the principal law enforcement role for communities that they once did.
And in a 2006 decision, the state’s Superior Court ruled that deputies could not conduct electronic surveillance.
Advocates have sought to restore some power to the office, but In 2017 a bill looking to give sheriffs the same power as police officers did not make it through the Legislature.
Many parents and school districts are already resisting the mask mandate, and Republican leaders in the Legislature are suing to block Wolf's order. In addition, legislators say they want to amend the state public health law to strip authority from the Secretary of Health for issuing statewide mandates like the masking order.