Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Does Texas need constables in the 21st century?

Here's a pair of must-read articles from Ed Timms and Kevin Krause at the Dallas News on the evolving role of constables over the last 15 years and whether they've seen too much mission creep:
According to the first story:
[Will] Hartnett, a Republican state representative from Dallas, is concerned with what he sees as a "dramatic expansion" of constables' duties. Constituents, he said, are upset about constables "setting up speed traps and stop-sign traps" – more to write a lot of tickets than to enforce traffic laws.

"There's a difference between enforcement and traps," he said.

Traffic enforcement by constables is praised by some community leaders as a public service that makes Dallas County roads safer. But for a county that relies heavily on fines and fees to pay the bills, such energetic traffic enforcement also is an important revenue stream – especially during an economic downturn. And traffic enforcement has contributed to an unprecedented expansion of constables' operations.

Some justice of the peace courts also are helping to get money from errant motorists into the county's coffers as quickly as possible. They do so by offering deferred disposition – with a probationary period of just a day – for some traffic offenses. If offenders complete the probationary period without another offense, the traffic violation stays off their record.

Such practices have produced results.

Constables are responsible for the majority of traffic cases that end up in JP courts. Revenue from traffic cases in JP courts was about $7.3 million in 2003. It topped $25.8 million in 2008 – an increase of more than 250 percent.

It's interesting to me that it's Republicans like Will Hartnett and Bob Duncan who are raising the most poignant and important questions about constables:
"The question is, in modern-day society, do we need independently elected constables?" said [Robert] Duncan, the state senator from Lubbock. "Because they're basically serving the same function as a [sheriff's] deputy could and probably should be serving."
But this isn't a particularly partisan issue, or it shouldn't be, but really a matter of basic good governance.
I absolutely agree that constables are redundant in many of their modern duties and also less accountable generally than municipal PDs and county Sheriffs. Constables are relics; one hundred years from now, I've little doubt history will view them as the same kind of quaint joke as the recently abolished county inspector of hides and animals.

I also thought the whole idea of "deferred disposition" with a one-day probationary period for traffic tickets was quite a remarkable development - pretty much an overt omission that county officials view traffic enforcement as little more than a money grab. While it might be better for the defendant who's concerned that a moving violation might raise their insurance rates, I thought this critique from a Houston attorney was spot on:

Sy Shamsie, an attorney in The Woodlands near Houston, recently found out about deferred dispositions after he was ticketed in Dallas County by a deputy constable. The deferred disposition, he said, provides an incentive not to fight a ticket. He said he believes that collecting money, not public safety, is the intent.

"They're just saying, 'Write me a check' " he said. "They've looking for any way to just generate revenue. That's the easiest way to do it."

This is what happens when government comes to view the criminal justice system more as a source of revenue generation than a means to promote public safety. The latter inevitably gets shortchanged in pursuit of the former.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Constables should just do things like process service and maybe evictions... things where maybe some authority figure would be useful but a real peace officer has better things to do like fight crime.

Scott D said...

Outside of big cities, most Texas Constable's do stick to civil process and evictions. It seems that only in areas like Dallas, Travis and Harris counties that the Constables have enough time on their hands to play traffic cop. But then again, if your office is generating millions of dollars in county revenue, then they can throw personnel your way to help generate it.

ckikerintulia said...

I was beneficiary of deferred adjudication on a traffic offense in Pueblo, CO. I think it was 6 months. No deferral on the $70. fine. That's not really deferred adjudication, is it? So, the insurance company got cheated out of what they would have cheated me out of otherwise.

Texas Maverick said...

The arbitrariness of traffic enforcement also makes me question its purpose. There are two locations in Denton County that can be counted on to have heavy enforcement by two different departments on the last weekend of each month. I naturally wonder if quotas exist. The expanded authority of constables and other "private" police is a dangerous path in my opinion. Having worked at a police dept many years ago, I can remember some gun-ho folks with good intentions riding with officers in a civilian capacity and not always with good results because of lack of experience and training. It is my opinion constables fall into this same area. But the real question is who is authorizing the changes? Call your state leg and let him/her know you think they may have make a mistake. Let's go back to the legislature and see if some reversals can be made.

Shadow Guv said...

In my area of Houston, the Constables are employed by both my neighborhood association and the TIRZ-Management District. This has become big business with the unelected board of the "improvement" district hiring what is essentially a private police department. I'm mostly concerned about accountability for dollars spent, versus results generated. I would guess that the stats will say that crime is up overall in this area, with the increased Constable presence slowing the trend. I seriously doubt the Constable's effectiveness in reducing general crime in this role, even though they are good people with good intentions.

John said...

Question Scott - With Republicans such as myself truly believing in limited government, why is it surprising that Republicans are questioning the need for Constables?

Anonymous said...

They've done away with the county inspectors of hides and animals? How will I be safe from crime now? Give those hides and animals an inch, they'll take a mile!

Anonymous said...

I think Texas needs Oyster police.

Anonymous said...

"I absolutely agree that constables are redundant in many of their modern duties and also less accountable generally than municipal PDs and county Sheriffs"

How is it they are generally less accountable than county sheriffs?

Like a Texas sheriff, they are elected. If the precinct voters don't like what their constable is doing, they can hold him accountable and vote him out of office, just like you can a sheriff, provided that's how the majority votes.

Bottom line here, constables are peace officers as definded by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and the office is a constitutionally created office.

Anonymous said...

From one of the commenters at the DMN..............

¿Si maneja en México y conseguir un billete allí, puedo asegurar que el billete no sería en Inglés. Escribir entradas en los EE.UU. en cualquier otro idioma que no sea Inglés es absurdo!

Si usted sólo habla español, mientras que viven en este gran país, yo recomiendo a aprender Inglés! Usted no tiene derecho a tener todo lo que traducido para usted.

Mi padre vino de España y aprendió a leer, escribir y hablar en Inglés. Mi madre llegó de Italia y aprendió a leer, escribir y hablar en Inglés. Tú también puedes!

Hablo español con fluidez y domina el italiano, pero no espero nada en este país para estar en cualquier idioma que no sea Inglés.

---------------------------------------

Translation of above:

If I drive in Mexico and get a ticket there, I can assure you that the ticket would not be in English. Writing tickets in the U.S. in any other language other than English is absurd!

If you speak only Spanish while living in this great country, I strongly advise you to learn English! You are not entitled to have everything translated for you.

My father came from Spain and learned to read, write, and speak in English. My mother came from Italy and learned to read, write, and speak in English. You can too!

I speak fluent Spanish and fluent Italian, but I do not expect anything in this country to be in any language other than English.

Anonymous said...

"Sy Shamsie, an attorney in The Woodlands near Houston, recently found out about deferred dispositions after he was ticketed in Dallas County by a deputy constable. The deferred disposition, he said, provides an incentive not to fight a ticket. He said he believes that collecting money, not public safety, is the intent."

Deferred disposition intent is to keep your insurance rate down. Deferred dispositions do not appear on your driving record.

Anonymous said...

John: Because Republicans like you also created the Department of Homeland Security.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

Hate to break the news to you but the constables of Harris County are supported and funded by the Republicans of the Commissioners Court, the largest constable offices in Radack's and Eversole's districts. And they are doing it at the expense of the Sheriff's funding.

Boyness said...

Constables are a JOKE. Just another layer in law enforcement bureaucracy that is truly out control. Go evict deadbeats and leave traffic enforcement to the real police. Idiots!

Boyness said...

Bottom line here, constables are peace officers as definded by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and the office is a constitutionally created office.

10/27/2009 06:27:00 PM
==================================
Bottom line HERE...PUT THEM OUT OF OFFICE. UNTRAINED MORONS PLAYING POLICE.

Anonymous said...

Here's a constable in San Antonio lending a hand . . .

http://www.woai.com/news/local/story/Constable-arrested-during-adult-video-theater-bust/LFBuXi8PAE2aQYgYB9xktg.cspx

Anonymous said...

"Bottom line HERE...PUT THEM OUT OF OFFICE. UNTRAINED MORONS PLAYING POLICE."

"Constables are a JOKE. Just another layer in law enforcement bureaucracy that is truly out control. Go evict deadbeats and leave traffic enforcement to the real police. Idiots!"

Boyness........

Many elected constables are honorably retired officers from municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies with extensive hours of training.

Perhaps before you say constables are idiots you might visit these links and read the story of the line of duty death of Smith County constable Dale Geddie.

Before his election as constable, constable Geddie started out working for Smith County SO in the jail, then lieutenant and also in patrol and criminal investigation.

Constable Geddie had responded to a call for assistance (family Violence) by Smith County deputies when he was shot down by the suspect. The male sususpect opened fire on both officers with a rifle, fatally wounding Geddie and severely wounding the deputy.

Idiot? No. Just a man who loved his work and believed in trying to help his fellow man, especially those who were weak and taken advantage of. The man who would be there to help you too if you called.


http://www.kltv.com/Global/story.asp?S=5003086

http://www.kltv.com/Global/story.asp?S=5000295&nav=1TjD

Anonymous said...

Some constables might be honorable retired FBI Agents for all I know but I can tell you that plenty of them are law enforcement wannabes and the deputy constables are wash-outs from other agencies driving around playing cowboys and indians.

It was a deputy constable that tased that 72 year old woman a few months back.

Anonymous said...

Constables are a gi-normous expense for county insurance, what with their racing about the burgs in their cop cars, crashing into people, livestock, and hay mows, and making bogus arrests. It was a constable who got caught stealing parts of the space shuttle Challenger when it blew up. It was a constable who got caught choking his chicken in the magazine store in San Antonio this week. It was constable who, oh, you get the point. There is an IQ ceiling for constables that coincides with the IQ floor for execution-eligible defendants.

Anonymous said...

Not only do we need a constitutional amendment to abolish every constable in the state, we need to throw in country treasurers as well. Thought should be given to do the same thing with county and district clerks. We do not need so many independently elected county officials, period. this goes back to the carpetbaggers after the civil war. Times have changed. How is it that school districts, city governments, etc. get along quite well without electing all these people?

Anonymous said...

The existence of constables in Harris County is both a waste of funds and a danger to deputy constables and deputy sheriffs alike. In Precinct 4, for example, they refuse to work with each other (except to make a "run" on the current responsibilities of the sheriff's office), do not back up each other on traffic stops, have deputies working neighborhoods side-by-side yet won't respond to calls in the neighboring 'hood covered by the other agency, duplicate various divisions of the sheriff's office, etc. Picture having two separate Austin Police Departments working the city of Austin - that is what the County Commissioners Court of Harris County has created in supporting the constable in Precinct 4 to duplicate the responsibilities of the Sheriff. It's bad management and yet it is allowed to go on.

Anonymous said...

The deputy constables of Precinct 4 are also the rudest cops I have met in years. First words out of one that stopped some kids? "Get the fu@k out of the car". Watched one pull a guy over for passing a school bus preparing to stop on the opposite side of the road - lights were NOT flashing red but started after he had already passed by - and he was in this poor guys face hollering yet he had no idea why he was even pulled over. Another one had traffic detoured for hours due to an accident but he had his back to traffic, talking on his cell and used a tow truck to plug a lane of major traffic instead of coning off the traffic lanes. When he was finally released from the accident site he and another unit left at over 50 MPH in a 40 zone, just to look "cool". Met one person who was fighting a ticket not because he didn't deserve it but because he was so upset at how he was treated by the deputy constable. Have meet many good deputies but the professionalism of Precinct 4 in dealing with the public is at the bottom of the barrel - and its all the constable's management team's fault.

Anonymous said...

Harris countys budget for Constables in fiscal year 2009:

Approximately $115,000,000
(thats 115 million!)

Constable precints:

8

(thats 8 different elected officials, 8 different departments, 8 different dispatch centers, etc, etc, etc.)

This is a total waste of taxpayer resources. This amount of money could be cut significantly if these positions were abolished and the deputies transferred to the Sheriff's Office. You say times are tough, the Commissioners Court is not giving COLAs to its employees this year. How about cutting these goof balls out of the loop and creating a Sheriff's Office which is larger, more powerful, and better funded.

Constables offices dilute the strength of County Law Enforcement and need to be abolished!

Anonymous said...

In the larger metropolitan areas this is a massive duplication of effort. In the rural areas the constables do their jobs as designed. Good luck on getting the Texas Constitution changed, however. If I recall correctly, they tried it to get rid of the constables in Lubbock once before. Result: fail.

Anonymous said...

"This amount of money could be cut significantly if these positions were abolished and the deputies transferred to the Sheriff's Office."

Except the SO has much higher standards so they won't take these yahoos.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of funny. Barny Frank recently said "We Are Trying On Every Front To Increase The Role Of Government."

And, Grits is highly critical of many governmental agencies. Ever wonder what the far left really believes?

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, getting rid on Contables in Lubbock was defeated in the committee that the legislature designates to see which proposed consitutional amendments get on the ballot. Never was a vote statewide on abolishing this office. Constables statewide intimidated the legislature to keep it off the ballot and were successful.

Plato

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What do Barney Frank's comments have to do with me or this blog? Do you imagine that he and I have some some reason hold the same opinions, 1:07? Or do you just think that everyone who disagrees with you automatically agree with each other? What a bizarre connection to make!

Anonymous said...

Similar situation in Harris Cty. Beyond mission creep, these guys are on steroids, getting into everything from traffic tix, to swat squads, to vice squads, and always the photo op raid to shut down a business that hasn't paid taxes right before election time.

Didn't the AG opine that constable private contract patrols for hoa-s, etc were illegal?

Constables are cash cows for jp courts at least one of which boasts a greater than 99% conviction score. (Prct 4, J.Kent Adams)

Papers can be hung cheaper by private process servers.

Couple of years ago we got rid of hide inspectors, let's give the constables the same heave-ho.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

Former President George W. Bush presided over what, to that point, was the largest expansion of government in our nation's history and many of you limited-government Republicans sat idly by while it occurred and only now want to raise up and cry out at Obama's expansion of government. Gotta love partisan politics.

Anonymous said...

One commenter commented on voting the contables out... but I don't think there is a "NONE" option on the ballot.

In the same vein as the constable issue are the other specialized law enforcement agencies - Independent School District Police, Campus Police (which claim to have a jurisdiction to enforce traffic laws on streets that are not part of the Campus - like the area surrounding the Texas Medical Center).

Why so many layers of law enforcement?

Anonymous said...

Good story about the proliferation of Texas peace officers:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113805196

It seems that little Texas agency wants their own praetorian guard. wants

Boyness said...

I have two words for the unprecedented expansion of law enforcement...HOMELAND SECURITY!

John said...

Well most of my experiences with Constables have been in Travis and Bastrop Counties. Neither of which are ever going to be accused of being Republicans. As far as Homeland Security goes, bad idea and stupid. But then, I never accused GWB of being a conservative.

Anonymous said...

The Narcotic Task Forces tried to get in on the Homeland Security game and wanted to re-flag themselves as Counter Terrorism Task Forces.
Fortunately, thanks to Harris County and Baytown they screwed that up and this never came to be.

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