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Nebraska Supreme Court Affirms Sheriff’s Misconduct Conviction

On May 26, 2023, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the conviction of former Dawes County Sheriff Karl J. Dailey for official misconduct. In a split decision the Court agreed with both a county court and a district court’s findings that Dailey was guilty for refusing to accept a prisoner from the Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) in July 2019.

The prisoner, 37-year-old Jesse Sierra, kidnapped, tortured, and raped his ex-girlfriend over a week’s time while moving her from location to location on the Pine Ridge Reservation. For that he received a life sentence from a federal judge in the District of South Dakota in February 2023. But citing concerns over jail security and Sierra’s medical condition, Dailey refused the prisoner’s transfer to his jail—though he acknowledged that he was “abusive” toward NSP command and that he could have accepted the prisoner and then transferred him.

Dailey’s defense was three-fold: 1) “persons lawfully arrested without a warrant are not lawfully committed to jail”; 2) “the Nebraska Jail Standards authorized Sierra’s exclusion from jail”; and 3) “sheriffs in Nebraska have inherent authority to decline to admit arrestees.”

The prosecution countered that the 69-year-old sheriff “acted out of spite over feuds and perceived slights with other law enforcement agencies” and that the ill will was “amplified” when NSP arrested Sierra in Dailey’s jurisdiction without contacting him in advance.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that a sheriff can be found guilty of official misconduct for failing to book a prisoner who was lawfully arrested without a warrant. It also found that the plain meaning of the term “lawfully committed” in statue 23-1703 does not require a court order for a prisoner to be considered lawfully committed.

In the high court’s analysis, the common law regarding warrantless arrests and the duties of sheriffs also supports this interpretation. The court’s decision was also consistent with the views of other states such as Iowa and Tennessee, which have adopted similar statutes. The Court also rejected Dailey’s argument that a prisoner must be physically present at a jail before a sheriff can fail to “receive” him.

Another argument rejected was that the sheriff had authority under Jail Standards to “decline to receive Sierra because [he] was injured and a high-risk prisoner.” The Court agreed with the State’s counterargument that the decision to refuse Sierra was not based on Jail Standards, and that Dailey failed to “discuss or even recite any provisions” of those Standards to support his position.

Chief Justice Mike Heavican and Douglas County District Judge Kimberly Miller Pankonin, sitting as a temporary justice, issued a dissenting opinion. Agreeing with Dailey that a prisoner can’t be rejected until physically at the jail, they said that he “did not fail to comply with his obligations as jailer because the NSP did not present Sierra at the Dawes County Jail.” They added that “the State Trooper who had Sierra in custody simply took him to the Scotts Bluff County jail without going to the jail in Chadron to see if Dailey’s statement that Dawes County wasn’t going to take Sierra was just rhetoric.” See: State v. Dailey, 314 Neb. 325 (2023).

In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category, Dailey ran unopposed for a 10th term in 2022 and won. But after the Court’s decision, he announced his retirement at a meeting of County commissioners on June 13, 2023, effective six weeks later on July 31, 2023. Taking his parting advice, Commissioners appointed Chief Deputy Jeff Johns to serve as interim Sheriff. For his part, the now-former sheriff struck a philosophical tone, saying:

“People always like you. They either like you when you come or they like you when you leave. I hope more liked me when I was coming than now that I’m going.”  

Additional sources: KBPY, KNBN, Scottsbluff Star-Herald

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Related legal case

State v. Dailey