Pennsylvania's system of constables is a remnant of colonial times that should be banished to the shelf of history, with muskets and butter churns.
Inconsistent practices, inadequate training and insufficient oversight have marred the performance of the system for years. A 2008 investigation by The Associated Press found dozens of cases of serious misconduct over the past decade, including heavy-handed tactics, theft of court funds and criminal behavior.
With a state police force, 67 county sheriff's offices and thousands of local police departments, Pennsylvania does not need to maintain a system of 1,200 private contractors -- most of them armed -- to serve arrest warrants and subpoenas, transport prisoners and perform other duties for district justice courts.
Part of the problem is constables seem to be neither fish nor fowl.
They are elected for six-year terms and can appoint deputies, who must be approved by a Common Pleas judge. Their duties are not clearly defined, but the bulk of their work is done for district justices. They're paid fees depending on the service and they're reimbursed for mileage; their jurisdiction is larger than that of sheriff's deputies, who cannot operate outside their own counties. But a 1991 state Supreme Court decision said they weren't part of the court system.
The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency oversees their training, which amounts to 80 hours plus an extra 40 if they are going to carry guns -- far less than the training of law enforcement officers. They don't fall under the state police system.
Constables buy their own weapons; if they wear uniforms and badges, they purchase them, too. If they transport prisoners, they do it in their own cars and not in marked vehicles. Some counties regulate the actions of their constables, while others do not.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wants constables to take more training, particularly in the use of force, and the head of the county constables' association said his members agreed to it. Beyond that, the head of the state House Judiciary Committee and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court are trying to improve oversight of constables.
But this system needs more than tweaking. In an era of computerization, it's possible to centralize the work, perhaps on a countywide basis. Since sheriff's deputies already perform similar work for Common Pleas Court, why not hand the constables' duties over to the professionals in the sheriff's office? For Allegheny County, constables are a $4.6 million-a-year enterprise, and the sheriffs would need more funding to handle the work, but that would be better than perpetuating this flawed system.
It's time to confine constables to our history books.
First published on February 22, 2009