top of page
  • Writer's pictureKyle Persaud

Can Police Enforce Civil Law?

Sometimes people have a civil law issue and wonder if police will enforce it. In general, the answer is no.


To answer the question, “Can the police enforce civil law?” we must first understand what civil law is. In the United States, there are two types of court cases: civil cases and criminal cases.


In Oklahoma, a case is criminal if the case is brought in the name of the state, and the state accuses someone of behavior that Oklahoma statutes define as a crime, and the state seeks to impose death, imprisonment, fine, removal from public office, or disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust, or profit under the state.


Any court case that is not criminal, is a civil case.


Because only the state may bring criminal cases, any case brought by a private party is always a civil case. The state may bring both civil and criminal cases.


For a fuller explanation of the difference between civil and criminal law, read my blog, “Civil Law vs. Criminal Law: Know the Difference.


(Note also, that “civil law” in this context refers to non-criminal law in the United States. “Civil law” may have other definitions in other contexts. For example, in some contexts “civil law” refers to a type of legal system that some countries use. For a discussion of the meaning of “civil law”, in that context, read my blog post on the topic. In this post, “civil law” refers to non-criminal law in the United States.)


What can the police do?


An Oklahoma statute defining the term “peace officer” says, “The term ‘peace officer’ means any sheriff, police officer, federal law enforcement officer, tribal law enforcement officer, or any other law enforcement officer whose duty it is to enforce and preserve the public peace.” Throughout this post, I will use the term “peace officer” to refer to any type of law enforcement officer, whether federal, state, county, or city.


The Oklahoma statute on the power of city police officers says:


A municipal police officer shall at all times have the power to make or order an arrest for any offense against the laws of this state or the ordinances of the municipality. The officer shall have such other powers, duties and functions as may be prescribed by law or ordinance.”


A statute on county sheriffs reads:


It shall be the duty of the sheriff, undersheriffs and deputies to keep and preserve the peace of their respective counties, and to quiet and suppress all affrays, riots and unlawful assemblies and insurrections, for which purpose and for the service of process in civil and criminal cases, and in apprehending or securing any person for felony or breach of the peace, they and every constable may call to their aid such person or persons of their county as they may deem necessary.”


A statute on the power of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (a statewide agency) holds:


“The Commissioner of Public Safety and each officer of the Department of Public Safety, as designated and commissioned by the Commissioner, are hereby declared to be peace officers of the State of Oklahoma and shall be so deemed and taken in all courts having jurisdiction of offenses against the laws of the state. Such officers shall have the powers and authority now and hereafter vested by law in other peace officers, including the right and power of search and seizure, except the serving or execution of civil process, and the right and power to investigate and prevent crime and to enforce the criminal laws of this state.”


Note that all of these laws give peace officers the power to enforce criminal law. The only powers given in these laws, that relate to civil cases, refer to the power of county sheriffs “for the service of process in civil and criminal cases.” This means that if a court or an attorney has issued a document in a civil case, the sheriff may serve the document on you (that is, deliver the document to you.) Other than that, these statutes give city police officers, county sheriffs, and state highway patrol officers, little power in civil cases. Note that the statute on the highway patrol even says specifically that highway patrol officers do not have the power of “serving or execution of civil process.” This means that highway patrol officers may not serve documents in civil cases. The law on city police officers is silent on whether city police may serve process in civil cases, but, a law on service of process in civil cases lists specific persons who may serve documents in civil cases, and city police officers are not among them.


Federal law determines the power of federal peace officers. Although there are many federal statutes on the power of various types of federal peace officers, federal peace officers generally may not enforce civil law either.


Let’s look at examples of how this works in practice:


  • Someone has burglarized your home and stolen your property. Because he has committed a crime, peace officers may arrest him and recover your property.


  • You have failed to pay your credit card bill. Because you have not committed a crime, a peace officer may not enforce the credit card company’s efforts to collect the debt. However, if the credit card company sues you, the sheriff (though not city police or highway patrol) may serve you with summons and notice of the lawsuit.


  • Someone has kidnapped your child. A peace officer may arrest the person and recover your child.


  • You are divorced, and the court has given you custody of your child and has awarded weekend visitation to your spouse. But your spouse keeps your child longer than the weekend and will not give your child back to you even though you rightfully have custody. Your spouse hasn’t committed a crime, so a peace officer may not arrest him. But you can go to court and file a motion to enforce visitation, and the sheriff (though not the city police or highway patrol) may serve your spouse with notice of the hearing.


I’ve had many cases where my client has gone to peace officers and asked for help. After a peace officer looks into the situation, the officer tells my client, “This is a civil matter. You will have to get a lawyer.” So the client comes to me for help with the civil issue.


Other ways in which peace officers may be involved in civil cases


Evictions


If you are evicted from your home, a judge may sign an order directing the sheriff to forcibly remove you.


Replevin


Replevin is the action where you ask a court to award you personal property that someone else has in their possession. If the judge awards you personal property, the judge may sign an order commanding a sheriff to physically take possession of the property and deliver it to you.


Failure to appear for asset hearings


If a judge orders to pay money, and you do not pay, the creditor may ask the judge to hold an asset hearing, where the judge will order you to appear and answer concerning your assets. If you do not appear, the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest, and a peace officer may arrest you.


Contempt of court


If you violate a court order (even in a civil case) you may be guilty of contempt of court. Contempt carries a fine of up to $500, and/or six months in jail. If you don’t appear at a hearing on contempt of court, the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest, and a peace officer may arrest you.


Child custody


Sometimes, in a particularly contentious child custody case, a judge will order a peace officer to accompany a parent or guardian to the location where the child is, and help the parent or guardian recover the child. Some judges are loath to do this; I’ve asked a judge for this type of order before and the judge was reluctant to grant it.


Prejudgment attachment


If you’re the defendant in a civil lawsuit, and you’ve left the county, concealed yourself, or if you’re about to remove your property to prevent the plaintiff from collecting it, the plaintiff may ask the judge to attach the property. In an attachment, a judge will order a sheriff to take possession of your personal property. If the property attached is real property, the attachment order will be filed in the county clerk’s land records office.


Do you need help? Contact the Persaud Law Office


Have you gone to law enforcement for help, and they’ve told you that it’s a civil matter and you need a lawyer? The Persaud Law Office may be able to help you.


Some of my clients have come to me when someone has threatened to send the police after them. Often in civil cases, these are idle threats, and I’ve told my clients they don’t need to be scared.


The Persaud Law Office has handled many civil cases, and we can tell you what the police may and may not do. If you would like our assistance in these matters, give us a call.

Comments


bottom of page