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Posse comitatus or sheriff's posse is the common-law authority of a county sheriff or other law officer to conscript any able-bodied males to assist him in keeping the peace or to pursue and arrest a felon; compare hue and cry. Originally found in English common law, it is generally obsolete, and survives only in America, where it is the law enforcement equivalent of summoning the militia for military purposes.



The term derives from the Latin posse comitatus, "power (force) of the county",[1] but legally means a sort of local militia.

English Civil War

In 1642, during the early stages of the English Civil War, local forces were employed everywhere by all sides that could. They produced valid written authority, inducing them to assemble. The two most common authorities used were, on the side of the Parliament, its own recent "Militia Ordinance"; or that of the king, the old-fashioned "Commissions of Array". But the Royalist leader in Cornwall, Sir Ralph Hopton, indicted the enemy before the grand jury of the county as disturbers of the peace, and had the posse comitatus called out to expel them.

United States

The power presumably continues to exist in those U.S. states that have not repealed it by statute, however. Resort to the posse comitatus figures often in the plots of Western movies, where the body of men recruited is frequently referred to as a posse. Based on this usage, the word posse has come to be used colloquially to refer to various teams, cliques, or gangs, often in pursuit of a crime suspect (on horseback in the Westerns), sometimes without legal authority. In a number of states, especially in the western United States, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies have called their civilian auxiliary groups "posses." The Lattimer Massacre of 1897 illustrated the danger of such groups, and thus ended their use in situations of civil unrest. Some states provide for the posse by statute.[2]

In the United States, a Federal statute known as the Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of the United States Army, and through it, its offspring, the United States Air Force as a posse comitatus or for law enforcement purposes. A directive from the Secretary of Defense prohibits the use of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps for law enforcement. No such limitation exists on the United States Coast Guard, which can be used for all law enforcement purposes (for example, Coast Guardsmen were used as temporary Air Marshals for many months after the 9/11 attacks) except when, as during WWII, a part of the Coast Guard is placed under the command of the Navy. This part would then fall under the regulations governing the Navy in this matter, rather than those concerning the Coast Guard. The limitation also does not apply to the National Guard when activated by a state's governor and operating in accordance with Title 32 of the U.S. Code (for example, National Guardsmen were used extensively by state governors during Hurricane Katrina response actions). Conversely, the limitation would apply to the National Guard when activated by the President and operating in accordance with Title 10 of the U.S. Code.[3]

During a July 17, 2008 speech, then-Senator Obama called for the creation of a federal posse comitatus to enhance national security, calling for "a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded" as the US Armed Forces.[4] An executive order signed Jan. 11, 2010 creating a Council of Governors[5] begins taking steps in that direction, but it remains questionable whether such a federal militia would be legal in the United States under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, or whether, if organized as a force still belonging to the several states but under the command of the President, it would not violate the Posse Comitatus Act.

See also




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