Tracy Murphree

Tracy Murphree, Denton County sheriff.

A petition to oust Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree has stemmed from his refusal to enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s face mask mandate, but he says the order’s contradictory wording is prohibiting him from enforcing it.

Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring people in most Texas counties to wear masks in public, with some exceptions. Murphree told The Cross Timbers Gazette the same day that while he will personally be wearing a mask, Denton County deputies won’t be enforcing the mandate because they have other work to do.

This declaration sparked an unofficial online petition to oust Murphree from office through the Texas Local Government Code chapter on removing county officials from office who refuse to uphold the law.

Jessica Luther Rummel, a Denton County resident who started the petition and fundraiser for court costs on Change.org, said Murphree’s decision as a chief law enforcement officer to not enforce the mandate sets a precedent for the legitimacy of law in the county.

“By making statements to say [the sheriff’s office] will not enforce the order, he’s using his position of power as the sheriff of Denton County to make political power plays,” Rummel said in a phone call Monday. “He’s emboldening unlawfulness. … He doesn’t go on social media and say that he thinks seat belts are unconstitutional. We understand there’s a law in place for seat belts because they save lives. Speed limits are not unconstitutional because they’re meant to save lives. Masks aren’t unconstitutional. They’re meant to save lives.”

Murphree isn’t the only sheriff or chief law enforcement official to refuse to enforce the executive order. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and a constable there say they won’t be enforcing, either. Lea County and Chaves County sheriffs in New Mexico also told local news media they won’t be enforcing the mandate in that state.

In a phone call Monday, Murphree said Abbott’s executive order is contradictory.

“First of all, what it says is that law enforcement and other local officials, not just the sheriffs, can and should enforce the executive order,” Murphree said. “That’s permissive and says you can and [they] believe you should, but they’re not directing anyone to enforce it.”

Executive orders are not law, but under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, “executive orders, proclamations and regulations have the force and effect of law.”

“I completely agree with that, but in his proclamation, he is prohibiting me from complying,” Murphree said of the governor. “His order does not direct me but gives me permission. I’m complying by not enforcing it. If I can’t detain anyone for this, I can’t write them a ticket. I can’t even stop and talk to them.”

If Abbott were to change the language, Murphree said he would reevaluate his stance but he doesn’t think Abbott would make such changes.

Abbott’s executive order says law enforcement and other officials can’t detain, arrest or confine in jail anyone for violating the mask order or for related nonviolent, non-felony offenses, but they can issue notices or make arrests for criminal trespass for violators if a business or property owner requests such action.

The deputy who works with the Denton County Transportation Authority will also follow the same protocol, he said. DCTA requires passengers to wear face coverings, but the sheriff’s deputy who works with the agency will not be enforcing it.

Murphree said businesses have every right to refuse service to anyone not wearing a mask. Whether the patron is refusing to leave or not, Murphree said this kind of enforcement is something the sheriff’s office will handle because it deals with criminal trespass law.

“That is how the order is written to be enforced,” Rummel said, adding she thought the sheriff was backpedaling.

Rummel said her email inbox has been flooded with messages of support as well as threats due to the online petition. The messages of encouragement are from “people who’ve been slingshotting his refusal to do his job since he was in office.”

“Even if I lose, I don’t care,” she said. “Right now is a time where it’s important when you see this kind of exploitation of power in law enforcement, that we confront it head on and get public statements to say that’s not OK. We have to denormalize this kind of politicization of power.”

The online petition isn’t official, but is intended as a show of support. An official one would have to be submitted to a district judge.

“While it is not necessary, I have also circulated the online petition in hopes that it will help influence a judge by showing how many residents in Denton County feel unsafe as a result of the sheriff’s failures,” she said in an email Monday evening.

A petition to remove an officer in Texas must be filed in a district court of the county in which the officer lives by a person who has lived in the state for at least six months and not currently under indictment in that county. The officer then must be served a citation — which orders the officer to appear and answer the petition — and a certified copy of the petition by the district judge after the person filing applies for them.

If the district judge refuses to issue the order, the petition is dismissed. If the judge issues the order requiring citation of the officer, they can temporarily suspend the officer and appoint someone else. The officer can only be removed following a trial by jury.

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

Recommended for you