- Dallas County constables' growing ticketing said to boost safety - and county coffers
- With little scrutiny, Dallas County constables have turned offices into de facto police departments
[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.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:
"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.
"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:
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.
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."