The following opinion is presented on-line for informational use only and does not replace the official version. (Mich Dept of Attorney General Web Site - www.ag.state.mi.us)



 

STATE OF MICHIGAN

MIKE COX, ATTORNEY GENERAL

CONST 1963, ART 7, § 5:

SHERIFFS:

Constitutional requirement that county officer have principal office at county seat

A county sheriff's principal office must be maintained at the county seat as required by Const 1963, art 7, § 5. The mere designation of one of several offices throughout the county as the principal office is not sufficient to meet this requirement. To satisfy the constitutional requirement, the office must, in fact, serve as the sheriff's principal or primary office.

Opinion No. 7215

June 30, 2008

Honorable Jud Gilbert
State Senator
The Capitol
Lansing, MI

Honorable Phillip Pavlov
State Representative
The Capitol
Lansing, MI

In separate requests, you each have asked for guidance concerning the requirement in Const 1963, art 7, § 5 that the principal office of certain county officers be located at the county seat. You ask whether the mere designation of one of several offices throughout the county as the principal office is sufficient to meet this requirement, and, if not, you ask what factors should be considered in determining whether an office is the "principal" office of a sheriff for purposes of complying with Const 1963, art 7, § 5.

Const 1963, art 7, § 5, found within the Constitution's article on local government, provides: "The sheriff, county clerk, county treasurer and register of deeds shall hold their principal offices at the county seat." In the Address to the People, the framers at the Constitutional Convention of 1961 explained this provision to the voters, stating that it represented a revision of the 1908 Constitution. By adding the word "principal" to art 7, § 5, "these county officers will be enabled to establish additional offices in other parts of the county, if needed." 2 Official Record, Constitutional Convention 1961, p 3390. 1

Similar to this constitutional provision, various statutory provisions also recognize that, in order to perform his myriad duties, the sheriff may maintain more than one office within the county, provided his principal office is located at the county seat. For example, MCL 45.16 provides that a jail may be located anywhere in the county:

Each organized county shall, at its own cost and expense, provide at the county seat thereof a suitable courthouse, and a suitable and sufficient jail and fireproof offices and all other necessary public buildings, and keep the same in good repair. However, and notwithstanding the provisions of section 11 of Act No. 156 of the Public Acts of 1851, as amended, being section 46.11 of the Compiled Laws of 1948, a jail may be located anywhere in the county. [Emphasis added.]

Additionally, MCL 51.83 provides that the sheriff shall maintain an office at the place where the courts of the county are held:

It shall be the duty of the sheriff of every county to keep an office at the place where the courts for such county are held, of which he shall file a notice in the office of the clerk of the county; and to keep the same open during the usual business hours of each day, Sundays excepted.

However, the requirement that the principal office must remain at the county seat is recognized in MCL 46.11, which provides in relevant part:

A county board of commissioners, at a lawfully held meeting, may do 1 or more of the following:

* * *

(b) Determine the site of, remove, or designate a new site for a county building. The exercise of the authority granted by this subdivision is subject to any requirement of law that the building be located at the county seat. [Emphasis added.]

Therefore, while sheriffs may establish and maintain more than one office within the county in which they serve, they may not maintain their principal office outside the county seat.

Your question asks what factors other than physical location should be considered in determining whether the office designated as the "principal" office is, in fact, the principal office as required by art 7, § 5. The Michigan Constitution and relevant statutes identified above do not define the term "principal office," nor do they specify those activities that must take place at the principal office. The term, therefore, must be construed using established principles of constitutional interpretation. "The first rule a court should follow in ascertaining the meaning of words in a constitution is to give effect to the plain meaning of such words as understood by the people who adopted it." Bond v Ann Arbor School Dist, 383 Mich 693, 699; 178 NW2d 484 (1970). "[W]e adopt the meaning which the ordinary citizens who ratified the constitution would attach to the words under consideration." Kuhn v Dep't of Treasury, 384 Mich 378, 384; 183 NW2d 796 (1971). Words in the Constitution must be given the meaning most reasonably derived from their context or setting. See Koontz v Ameritech Services, Inc, 466 Mich 304, 318; 645 NW2d 34 (2002).

In the context of art 7, § 5, the term "principal" is a word of common usage and understanding. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition (2001) defines "principal" as "most important, consequential, or influential: CHIEF." Black's Law Dictionary, Revised 4th Edition (1968) offers a similar definition: "Chief; leading; most important or considerable; primary; original. Highest in rank, authority, character, importance, or degree." In addition, Roget's Super Thesaurus, 2nd Edition (1998), regards the following words as synonyms for the word "principal": "main, major, chief, leading, primary, dominant, foremost, supreme, star, key, most important."

In a Letter Opinion of Attorney General Frank J. Kelley to Prosecuting Attorney Wesley J. Nykamp, dated April 11, 1975, the following discussion was provided concerning a sheriff's principal office:

The term "principal office" referred to in Const 1963, art 7, § 5, does not necessarily mean the place where the majority of the functions and duties of the sheriff are carried out; it refers to the place where the sheriff maintains his office and spends most of his time while carrying out the functions of his office. As noted above, the adjective "principal" was appended to the word "office" to permit the establishment of additional offices in other parts of the county. Thus, in view of the modern and rapid means of transportation and communication, there is no reason why the sheriff may not locate his principal office away from the jail and, inasmuch as the legislature has specifically authorized construction of a jail outside the county seat, 1846 RS, ch 13, § 16, supra, Ottawa County may construct its jail at a place other than Grand Haven [the county seat] so long as the sheriff maintains his principal office in that city.

While this 1975 opinion refers to the time the sheriff spends carrying out the functions of his office, this temporal component must be read reasonably as recognizing that the law enforcement duties of a sheriff are not solely administrative and can require that considerable time be spent out of the office. In any event, the mere designation of an office as the "principal" office is not controlling for constitutional purposes; the office must actually be the sheriff's chief, primary, or main office to meet the requirements of art 7, § 5. 2

In the absence of Michigan case law defining what among the many activities and duties of a sheriff must take place at the sheriff’s principal office, a number of factors might reasonably be considered in resolving the inherently factual question of whether the designated principal office is, in fact, the "principal" office for purposes of complying with art 7, § 5. They include, for example: the location where the administrative records and files used by a sheriff on a daily basis are maintained; the location where the sheriff's secretary or executive staff report to work on a regular basis; the location where the public wishing to conduct business with the sheriff's office would be expected to appear; and the location where the day-to-day duties and administrative functions of the sheriff that must be carried on in an office setting are conducted. It must also be borne in mind that the manner in which sheriffs most efficiently organize their various offices may vary greatly depending on the overall size of their departments, the population and geography of their counties, the experiences that dictate the law enforcement needs of their counties, and numerous other factors, all of which may play a role in determining which of several offices is the "principal" office.

It is my opinion, therefore, that a county sheriff's principal office must be maintained at the county seat as required by Const 1963, art 7, § 5. The mere designation of one of several offices throughout the county as the principal office is not sufficient to meet this requirement. To satisfy the constitutional requirement, the office must, in fact, serve as the sheriff's principal or primary office.

MIKE COX
Attorney General

1 The Address to the People was prepared in accordance with the requirements of 1961 PA 8, which directed the Constitutional Convention of 1961 to explain the changes it was proposing to the 1908 Constitution and the reason for the changes and to circulate copies of the Address in pamphlet form. 2 Official Record, Constitutional Convention 1961, p 3357. The text of the Convention's commentary that accompanied each provision of the proposed constitution in the Address to the People is available in the Official Record at pages 3355-3411 and can also be found in published volumes of the Michigan Compiled Laws Annotated under the heading "Convention Comment" corresponding to each provision.

2 See People v Barber, 14 Mich App 395, 401; 165 NW2d 608 (1968) (the character of a thing is determined by its substantive nature and not by the label attached to it).