What Is the Local Sheriff’s Role in Collecting Judgments?

Collecting a judgment should be as straightforward as accepting full payment from the debtor at the conclusion of a civil case. Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple. Most cases lead to long, drawn-out collection processes in which the local sheriff is sometimes engaged. The sheriff’s role in collecting judgments is defined by state and local law.

Understanding the sheriff’s role begins with understanding that civil courts do not render guilty or not guilty verdicts. They make liability judgments. In the case of a monetary judgment, the winning party is awarded a sum of money based on the losing party’s liability. Collecting that award is the winning party’s responsibility.

Also known as the judgment creditor, the winning party may seek assistance from the local sheriff. It really depends on the collection strategies a creditor decides to pursue. There are cases in which the sheriff’s assistance is unnecessary.

The Court’s Enforcement Arm

Civil courts do not get directly involved in collection. Collection, or enforcement as it is known, is the judgment creditor’s legal responsibility. The local sheriff acts as the court’s enforcement arm but only at the request of the creditor. If the creditor doesn’t ask for help, the local sheriff will not get involved.

It is worth noting that the sheriff’s office is limited in what it can do. It can only enforce orders from the court. As an example, a judgment creditor might go back to court seeking a writ of execution. Such a writ would give the creditor authority to seize a judgment debtor’s personal property and sell it for payment of the debt.

Should the writ be granted, the court does not expect a judgment creditor to attempt to seize property on his own. Instead, property seizure is the sheriff’s domain. At the request of the creditor, the sheriff would prepare the necessary documents and then seize the property. Sale of the property would be overseen by the sheriff’s office.

Other Possible Functions

Depending on state laws, sheriffs can serve other functions as well. For example, the local sheriff might be able to assist a judgment creditor in locating a debtor’s assets. Where that is not possible, or in cases in which judgment creditors do not trust their local sheriff’s offices to work in their best interests, a specialized collection agency can do the job.

Salt Lake City’s Judgment Collectors is one such agency. They help collect outstanding judgments in eleven states. One of their strengths is being able to find assets debtors are purposely trying to hide. Success can require a considerable investment in time and resources, which is why the local sheriff is not always the best choice for this particular task.

The other side of the coin is wage garnishment. Local sheriffs are often asked to serve garnishment orders to employers. It is a simple enough task that can be completed fairly quickly. Note that any collection service a local sheriff offers is subject to administrative fees. Sheriffs do not provide services for free.

A Limited Role

It should be clear that the sheriff’s role in judgment collection is a limited one. The sheriff acts as the court’s enforcement arm, enforcing court orders through a variety of services. Ultimately though, collection is left up to the judgment creditor. A sheriff will not get involved in a collection case unless requested.

If this doesn’t seem right to you, you’re not alone. Nonetheless, this is the way civil law works in this country. Local sheriffs don’t have the authority to go out and collect unpaid debts with no restrictions. They need to follow the rules like anyone else.