Changes to state law relax residency requirements for sheriff candidates, exclude candidates with felony conviction

Updated statute disqualifies convicted felons from serving as sheriff, relaxes residency requirement
Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 1:24 PM EDT
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STATEWIDE, N.C. (WECT) - As the filing period nears for people seeking to run for sheriff in North Carolina, the State Board of Elections is letting candidates know about recent changes to state law that will impact them.

Effective this fall, state statute no longer requires sheriff candidates to live in the county they wish to serve for a full year leading up to the election. House Bill 312 also disqualifies a candidate from serving if they have ever been convicted of a felony in the United States, even if the conviction is later expunged.

The law was sponsored by a number of Republican legislators, several of them from southeastern North Carolina. State Representative Charlie Miller, who also serves as chief deputy of the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, was one of the sponsors and spoke to WECT about what inspired the bill.

“A few years ago, there was a sheriff who was convicted of a felony and he got it expunged and was able to run again,” Miller explained. “We felt strongly you shouldn’t have a felony conviction and be able to be the highest ranking law enforcement office in the county.... What does that do to the morale of the officers?”

The bill had strong support from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and was introduced at their request.

In recent history, at least one sheriff candidate managed to get their criminal record expunged to get back on the ballot. Sheriff Gerald Hege served Davidson County from 1994 to 2004. In 2003, he was suspended from office after being charged with more than a dozen felonies, including embezzlement by a public officer, obtaining property by false pretenses, and obstruction of justice.

Hege was the center of an SBI investigation after thousands of dollars seized from a drug bust disappeared. Over two dozen of his employees gave sworn testimony against him, and Hege ultimately accepted a plea deal, pleading guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and resigning as sheriff.

Once Hege’s probation expired, he jumped back into politics, running for Davidson County sheriff in 2010. He lost in the Republican primary. Hege later got his criminal record expunged, and filed to run for sheriff again in 2018, but was unsuccessful.

Under the new law, dubbed by some as the “Gerald Hege Bill,” you are ineligible for the office of sheriff if you’ve been convicted of a felony, even if your criminal record has been expunged. However, the law does allow an exception if the candidate has received an “unconditional pardon of innocence.”

Residency Requirement Change

While it is not the central focus, the new law also updates the statutory residency requirements for sheriff candidates. Previously, statute required that sheriff candidates live in the county where they were running for a year preceding the election.

“The office of sheriff was made elective by the General Assembly in 1806, and included the one year residency requirement. This requirement has been unconstitutional since passage of the 1868 State Constitution which provides that any voter over 21 can run for office unless disqualified by an express provision of the state constitution itself,” explained Gerry Cohen, an adjunct instructor for Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Cohen spent 31 years as the Director of Legislative Drafting for the North Carolina General Assembly.

While Cohen says the one year residency requirement has been unconstitutional for over a century, it remained in state statute until House Bill 312 went into effect last month. Since it was part of the law, many people still assumed the residency requirement to be valid, and it was the focus of a major local news story in 2018. An alleged violation of the requirement, and a series of events that followed, led to the temporary removal of Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene.

Columbus County resident Gloria Smith filed a formal complaint, questioning whether Greene lived at the Cerro Gordo farm he listed as his primary residence when filing to run for Columbus County Sheriff. Greene had a recreational vehicle parked on the property, but owned homes in neighboring Robeson and Horry Counties where protestors contended he actually lived. Lewis Hatcher, the former sheriff of Columbus County who Greene beat by 37 votes, was upset the residency requirement was not being applied to Greene’s candidacy.

“He should be held to the same standard I’m held to,” Hatcher said at the time. “I’ve rode out there also. There’s nothing that gave me any indication that anyone lived there.... What’s good for me should be good for my opponent.”

While there is no requirement for sheriff, the Article II of the state constitution does impose minimum requirements for residency for several statewide offices.

Governors and lt. governors must have lived in the United States for five years and North Carolina for two years immediately prior to the election. State representatives must live in their district for a year prior to the election, and state senators must live in the state for two years and their district for one year leading up to the election.

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