Pa. Supreme Court rules sheriffs deputies of second-class counties are police, reverses Commonwealth Court decision

By Jon Campisi | Mar 28, 2012

Reversing the decision of an intermediate state appellate court, Pennsylvania’s highest court has ruled that deputy sheriffs of counties of the second class are, indeed, police officers by definition under Pennsylvania law.

In a majority opinion authored by Justice Seamus McCaffery and released March 26, the state Supreme Court vacated an earlier ruling by Commonwealth Court that found deputy sheriffs of second-class counties were not police officers under Act 111.

The appellant in the case, the Allegheny County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, had filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board seeking to represent, for collective bargaining purposes under Act 111, deputy sheriffs employed by Allegheny County, which is home to Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania.

The association had twice previously attempted to attain the same objective, only to fail each time before the PLRB and Commonwealth Court, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

Following those decisions, however, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly amended the state crimes code and then the Municipal Police Education and Training Law, in 1995 and 1996 respectively, to define deputy sheriffs in second-class counties as police officers.

Given the changes in the law, the high court said it had no choice but to rule that the deputies are, in fact, police officers with collective bargaining abilities under Act 111.

The PLRB hearing examiner had earlier concluded the opposite due to the fact that deputy sheriffs’ primary duties are not those of typical police officers, but rather were those directly related to the operation of the courts.

For this reason, the hearing examiner had ruled that the bargaining rights of deputy sheriffs were governed under a different section of the Pennsylvania Public Employee Relations Act.

The association appealed to Commonwealth Court, which upheld the PLRB hearing examiner’s decision.

The justices, in their ruling, stated that their review of the PLRB’s decision was limited to determining whether there was a violation of constitutional rights, an error of law, a procedural irregularity, or whether the findings of the PLRB were supported by substantial evidence.

“Contrary to the conclusions of the Commonwealth Court and the PLRB, the controlling factor in this case is that the General Assembly, in two separate pieces of legislation, specifically singled out for definition as police officers, deputy sheriffs of counties of the second class,” the ruling states. “No other deputy sheriffs in this Commonwealth have been so defined by the General Assembly.”

The justices wrote that given the changes to the law, and with case law to back up their assertions, they had no choice but to deem deputy sheriffs of second-class counties police officers for the purposes of Act 111.

The ruling states that the high court has previously held that non-traditional “police-officer” law enforcement personnel fall under Act 111’s reach because of their legislative definition as police officers in statutes unrelated to Act 111.

“Contrary to the Commonwealth Court’s analysis, when the legislature designates a specific class of law enforcement personnel as ‘police officers,’ it is not then required to add the words, ‘which means that these individuals are hereby legislatively authorized to be or act as police officers’ in order for its meaning to be made clear,” the Supreme Court ruling states.

The ruling states that through statutory definition, deputy sheriffs of second-class counties are viewed as being on par with traditional municipal police officers.

“Significantly, as the PLRB found, the Deputy Sheriffs are also required to be trained to be police officers pursuant to the MPETL [Municipal Police Education Training Law],” the ruling continues. “Therefore, this case is not distinguishable, in any significant manner, from our prior determinations that Act 111 applied to certain law enforcement personnel based on the language of the relevant statutory scheme governing those specific employees.”

In conclusion, the ruling states that the “PLRB’s and the Commonwealth Court’s application of a judicially and administratively created test to examine whether the Deputy Sheriffs are police officers, after they have been defined as such by the General Assembly, was erroneous.”

The high court vacated the earlier Commonwealth Court ruling and remanded the matter back to that court for further proceedings.

The majority opinion, written by Justice McCaffery, was also signed by Justices Thomas Saylor, Max Baer and Debra Todd.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice J. Michael Eakin filed dissenting opinions.

In his dissent, Castille wrote that he holds that deputy sheriffs of second-class counties are not “policemen” for the purposes of collective bargaining under Act 111, but are instead employees covered by the Pennsylvania Public Employee Relations Act.

Eakin agreed with Castille’s contention.


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