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Florida Sheriffs and Revenuers: A Brief History

September 13, 2021

By David Brand
Law Enforcement Coordinator, Florida Sheriffs Association 

There has been a long-standing relationship, beginning when Florida was a Territory of the United States, between our Florida sheriffs and what is now called the State Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. 

Our Florida sheriffs and the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco have a long-standing symbiotic relationship dating back to 1822 when Florida was still a Territory. The sheriffs and the “Revenuers” collected taxes on alcohol, regulated sales, and enforced laws designed to protect public health.

The genesis of the Florida sheriff can be traced back to when Florida, as a Spanish colony, came under the Stars and Stripes when President James Monroe appointed Andrew Jackson the Commissioner and Provisional Governor. The president wrote to Jackson, “I have confidence that your appointment will be immediately and most beneficially felt. Smugglers and slave traders will hide their heads, pirates will disappear, and the Seminoles cease to give trouble.” Consequently, jurisdiction establishing East Florida took place at St. Augustine on July 10th, 1821. A week later, on July 17th, Andrew Jackson himself accepted the transfer of West Florida at Pensacola.

Section 4 of a lengthy ordinance promulgated by the governor on July 21, 1821, provided that a sheriff and a clerk would be appointed for the courts of the territory’s first two counties, Escambia and St. Johns, thereby establishing the Office of Sheriff in Florida. Later statutes assigned the sheriff a myriad of duties including managing jails, taxes, various aspects of county government, and interaction with other judicial and administrative officials.

On March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted to the Union and became a state. From 1845 through 1915, the sale of intoxicating liquors in Florida was regulated on the local level. The federal government primarily regulated and taxed the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages.

In the early 20th century, public opinion about the consumption of alcohol was so predominant that it pushed a gubernatorial candidate into the Capitol in Tallahassee. Governor Sidney Johnston Catts, Florida’s 22nd governor, won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1916. However, the Florida Supreme Court ordered an election recount, rescinding his nomination. He then left the Democratic party and was elected as a Prohibition candidate. He served as Governor January 2, 1917 to January 4, 1921. His election may have reflected the mood of the country because on January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment, or Volstead Act, became effective making the possession of alcoholic beverages unlawful.

It was complicated and dangerous

Some saw prohibition as a positive crusade while others viewed it as designed to enact social control by a minority on the majority. In April, 1919, Florida Sheriffs Association members met in Jacksonville for their annual meeting. Perry Gilbert Ramsey, Alachua County sheriff presided as president. While the “moonshine problem” was discussed it was decided to take the matter up again in Tallahassee on April 8th when the legislature was in session. The law that passed in 1919 revised the alcohol fee system and reflected, at least in part, the association’s requests. During this time some counties were “dry,” or did not allow the sale of alcohol, while others were “wet.” Enforcement, considering the difference between rural and urban areas along with local, state, and federal laws that were ever changing, made enforcement difficult. Enforcement, seasoned with the mood of the country changing towards alcohol sales, presented a challenging environment for the sheriffs.

Sheriffs went in harm’s way, sometimes alone in rural counties, to enforce the alcohol prohibition laws. One example occurred on August 20th, 1927, when Flagler County Sheriff Perry Hall raided an establishment where moonshine was being consumed. Outnumbered, yet undaunted, Sheriff Hall ordered James Smith, one of the occupants, to raise his hands as he moved into the room to make the arrest. Smith suddenly spun around and struck the sheriff in the head with a whiskey bottle. Sheriff Hall never regained consciousness and died hours later. James Smith was later gunned down by a posse after a 21-day manhunt found him hiding out in Brookfield, Georgia.

The National Prohibition Act was rescinded on December 5, 1933, with the passage of the 21st Amendment. Afterwards, legislation began to appear providing for the taxing and regulation of alcohol.

Birth of the ABT

On June 27, 1935, the Florida State Beverage Department was created after the Beverage Act of 1935 was passed. This Act provided the authority to tax and regulate the liquor industry. Mr. J.A. Cormier was appointed by Governor David Sholtz as the first Director. As the department grew, branch offices were created in Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami, and Key West.

Safety Harbor still raid in 1953 that had 900 gallons of mash. Left to right: Bill Roberts, future Pinellas County sheriff A.C. Brannan, State Beverage Agent Percy Vasbinder, State Beverage Agent R.E. Fokes, Julias Adams (standing, future judge) and Sheriff Sid Saunders

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation was created in 1969. The State Beverage Department came under their administrative control and was renamed the Division of Beverage on June 19, 1969. As their responsibilities increased, the Division of Beverage was renamed the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco on July 1, 1978. Over the years, the partnership between ABT, sheriffs, and police departments has increased to address local issues as well as creating a force multiplier.

Remembrances and Reflections

Steve Casey, Executive Director Florida Sheriffs Association
Sheriffs Leading, Uniting, and Protecting since 1821

During his long and storied career, Florida Sheriffs Association Executive Director Steve Casey was an ABT special agent and supervisor for six years. During his tenure, he worked the Atlantic coast and Florida Keys. Director Casey commented that the state collects a significant amount of revenue from the taxes on the sale of alcohol so in the early years of the agency the agents received the pseudonym “Revenuers” in some circles. During the time he was an agent, the agency focused on two priorities: The enforcement of unlawful sales to underage persons, and the sale and use of controlled substances on licensed premises. While working in the Florida Keys, he coordinated a series of long-term drug investigations at the request of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of drug dealers and, in some cases, the staff and owners of bars and restaurants. In some cases, partnering with the sheriff’s office, Emergency License Suspension Orders were issued that resulted in the closure of retail sale establishments until a formal hearing could be held.

Franklin County Sheriff A. J. Smith

Franklin County Sheriff A. J. Smith was the law enforcement bureau chief at ABT 1999 to 2005. During his tenure he is proud of the fact that he was instrumental in getting significant pay raises for the agents. Their other accomplishments involved providing a high level of service to local law enforcement by initiating operations where underage drinking laws were enforced to save the lives of young persons who might otherwise have attempted to drive motor vehicles impaired. One of his major challenges involved having the ABT under a large state agency that had numerous other divisions that were not law enforcement. This created a competitive environment for funding.

Captain John Harris, retired

John Harris was a special agent and Captain with the ABT from 1975 to 2006. During his career he saw a lot of changes in the various missions and methodology of investigations. He described one of the challenges as being restricted by statute regarding the types of crimes they could investigate. They were always partnered with local law enforcement and other state agencies. As an example, when they encountered an impaired driver driving erratically, something frequently encountered, they would either call local law enforcement or the Florida Highway Patrol who directed them to initiate the stop and prevent a possible tragedy. FHP, the police, or the sheriff’s office would arrive and make the arrest.

One initiative that he enjoyed was when the Leon County Sheriff’s Office began their School Resource Officer Program. The SROs would hear about parties in rural areas that would be attended by teenagers. This provided an opportunity for deputy sheriffs and ABT personnel to work together to prevent underage consumption of alcohol that might otherwise result in a tragedy.

Noteworthy joint operations with sheriff’s offices

In 2021, at the request of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, the Gainesville ABT District Office assisted with the “Royal Community of Wildwood Homecoming,” an annual event that occurs on Father’s Day. This event draws a crowd of approximately 10,000 with street vendors selling food and alcoholic beverages. In the interest of public safety, several persons were arrested for selling alcohol without a license and about $3,000.00 worth of illicit beverages were destroyed.

In March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Palm Beach County and ABT officials, along with local law enforcement and fire departments, formed the CECT; the COVID Education and Compliance Team. This collective effort endeavored to ensure that all businesses and residents of Palm Beach County were in compliance with the Governor’s COVID Executive Orders. This partnership provided frontline protection for the health and safety of the residents and visitors of Palm Beach County.

The future

Administrator Jerome Worley, ABT

As the alcohol and tobacco industries modernize and evolve, the ABT must continue to do so as well said Administrator Jerome Worley. Certainly, there will always be a focus on preventing alcoholic beverages and tobacco products from being sold and provided to underage individuals, recognizing and adapting to the changing landscape will become a priority. While the heyday of the moonshiners have long since passed, ABT will continue to develop practices and procedures to ensure that state revenue is properly reported and collected, while also guarding against trade practice violations and maintaining the structure of Florida’s tiered regulatory system.