LITTLE ROCK — The Searcy County Quorum Court declared the county sheriff’s post vacant Wednesday after a judge’s order removed the elected officeholder.
The order, entered by Circuit Judge David Clinger on Monday, followed a May 23 state Supreme Court ruling that ex-Sheriff Kenny Cassell was ineligible to hold office because of a 1979 misdemeanor theft conviction. The state’s highest court overturned Clinger’s previous ruling that allowed Cassell to keep his job as sheriff despite the conviction.
With Cassell’s departure, Chief Deputy Dewayne Pierce became acting sheriff under provisions of a county ordinance.
County Judge Johnny Hinchie said Wednesday that the quorum court likely would appoint a permanent sheriff to serve the rest of Cassell’s two-year term at its regular meeting next Monday.
"We’re taking applications and resumes. We’ve had eight since the Supreme Court ruling," Hinchie said.
Pierce, who said he had no desire to serve in that capacity, said sheriff’s office personnel were going about their jobs as usual in the wake of recent events.
"Everyone that works here and was commanded by Sheriff Cassell are upset," he said. "It was always in the back of everyone’s mind this could occur, but it doesn’t hit you until it happens. They’re responding well. It’s business as usual."
Cassell pleaded guilty in October 1979 to a federal misdemeanor charge of embezzlement or theft of interstate or foreign shipments by carrier, admitting that he knowingly possessed stolen Cornish hens worth less than $100 that belonged to Tyson Foods and that the company had intended to ship to Maryland. The offense occurred while Cassell was employed by the sheriff’s office as a deputy.
Cassell was elected sheriff in November 2010. During that campaign he bought a newspaper ad telling voters about his conviction. He was re-elected in November 2012.
In October 2011, Searcy County Prosecutor Cody Hiland filed a petition seeking Cassell’s removal from office. Clinger dismissed the petition in August 2012, ruling that the state had not shown that Cassell’s conviction had impugned the integrity of the office or directly impacted his ability to serve. Clinger pointed out that voters knew about the conviction when they elected Cassell.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, and the high court overturned Clinger’s ruling in a unanimous decision.
The court cited Article 5, Section 9 of the Arkansas Constitution, which states "No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime shall be eligible to the General Assembly or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this state."
The court said it has ruled in the past that an "infamous crime" involves elements of deceit and dishonesty, and noted the circuit judge had determined Cassell’s crime did involve dishonesty, though he ruled the conviction alone was not enough to require removal without some proof that it impugned the integrity of the elected office or directly affected Cassell’s ability to serve.
The state Legislature this year enacted Act 724, which clarifies how an "infamous crime" is defined and will take effect Aug. 16. The new definition includes misdemeanor theft of property.