Posse Comitatus

An old California state law was removed this last week, the California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872, which had previously made it a misdemeanor, or subject to a fine, for an able-bodied adult to refuse to help officials with tasks like apprehending an escaped prisoner or preventing “any breach of peace.” 

The bill removing the law was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on August 30th, without an accompanying statement; however, there has been vocal opposition to the new bill from the California State Sheriff’s Association stating that “the bill discourages the notion that people should help out law enforcement if they need to be assisted.”

Although people should be inclined to help others, Sacaramento country has successfully cited a posse comitatus in its defense, which two residents of a remote town said that after a sheriff asked them to investigate a 911 call from a neighbor, they walked in on a murder scene and were attacked.

What is a Posse Comitatus?

The Latin phrase “posse comitatus” can be translated as “force of the county.” 

During the Western frontiers of the United States during the 1800’s, posse comitatus was a way for local sheriffs to keep the peace in places where law enforcement was informal or poorly funded. Later on, Southern officials invoked posse comitatus in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which said that civilians could be recruited to capture individuals such as striking workers, people considered to be politically extreme, immigrants, and escapees.

Armed vigilante groups targeting migrants today would not be considered posse comitatus unless convened by a sheriff.

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