140-year-old Colorado law allows coroner to assume role of acting sheriff

9NEWS @ 9. 1/10/2017

SEDGWICK COUNTY - A law written in 1877, a year after Colorado became a state, is at the center of a recall election in Eastern Colorado after the sitting sheriff’s arrest for sex assault, 9WTK has learned.

As of Jan. 9, 2016, Howard McCormick had six jobs, a rancher, a coroner, commissioner-elect, director of the ambulance service, a flight medic and, as of August, the acting Sedgwick County sheriff.

“My number one job is this ranch, which is also my number one love I think,” McCormick said.

His family has been ranching on this land for three generations.

McCormick has been the coroner for 20 years and recently ran for the commissioner seat unopposed – for something different to do. He was sworn in for that job Jan. 10. 9Wants to Know talked to him earlier this week.

“Right now technically I'm still the coroner for another 48 hours, I'm not yet the commissioner, I'm the acting sheriff, I'm the director of the ambulance service for another 24 hours, this ranch, and I fly on a helicopter. I sleep every chance I get,” he said.

Unlike McCormick’s other five jobs, which he chose, the sheriff’s gig is not something he was aiming for.

In August, the then Sedgwick County Sheriff Tom Hanna was charged with felony sex assault. A judge ordered him to stay away from the courthouse where the sheriff’s office is located and not carry a gun, making him unable to perform his elected duties.

“I don't know if I was much surprised, as I was just extremely disappointed,” McCormick said of his sudden acting sheriff duties. “I'm like anybody else that votes for our elected officials, I expect them to be at a certain level. Disappointed I had to step in.”

McCormick stepped in based on an 1877 law that says, “When there is no sheriff in any county, it is the duty of the coroner to exercise all the powers and duties of the sheriff of his county until a sheriff is appointed or elected and qualified.” (C.R.S. 30-10-604)

Brittny Lewton is the District Attorney for the 13th Judicial District, which includes Sedgwick and six other counties. She unearthed the Frontier-era statute while investigating Hanna.

“There's been jokes for years made by sheriffs, by coroners about the fact that "coroners might have to take over as a sheriff sometime, ha ha" you know, nobody ever took it seriously,” she said. “[I] read and re-read and looked for case law to make sure, so that the next morning when I was up in Sedgwick county and Mr. Hanna was likely being taken away in handcuffs, there would at least be somebody in place.”

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock says there is another law that says the undersheriff takes over when there is a vacancy.

C.R.S. 30-10-505 says in part, “When a vacancy occurs in the office of sheriff of any county, the undersheriff of such county shall in all things execute the office of sheriff until a sheriff is appointed or elected and qualified.”

“The real conflict here is there's one statute that says one thing and another statute that says another,” Spurlock said.

The way Lewton sees it, no vacancy exists.

“I think Howard [McCormick] had stayed in this position longer than anybody had anticipated,” she said, “that's because Sheriff Hanna, and it's his right, chose not to resign. And from I understand and conversations I've had with people, no one in living memory can remember when a sheriff who's facing this kind of trouble didn't resign. Because then there would be a vacancy. Then the undersheriff would become the sheriff. But he has not resigned so he's still the sheriff.”

What made the Sedgwick County situation even more complicated, the undersheriff was on leave at the time of Hanna's arrest. Two deputies were left to patrol 550 miles.

Sheriff Spurlock says he will be talking to the County Sheriffs of Colorado, who have a conference this week, their lobbyists and lawmakers about changing the law.

“The office of the coroner and the office of sheriff are two complete different skill sets,” Spurlock said. “I have no skills to be the coroner, I don't believe that most coroners have the training or the skills to be the sheriff. Those two offices should not be co-mingling their authorities.”

As for McCormick, he’s OK to work a little less. After four months as the sheriff, he has simple words for the next one.

“I'm going to give him the same advice I was given by the District Attorney, ‘here's the office. Don't mess it up,’” he said.

Since Hanna didn’t resign, the county held a recall election to ask voters to decide if they wanted to replace him. 

The recall was successful. And Larry Neugebauer is the new Sheriff of Sedgwick County Lewton told 9Wants To Know.

9Wants to Know reached out to the Colorado Coroner's Association - the vice president said he couldn't comment on the any changes to the law since the language for those don’t exist.

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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