Monday, May 14, 2007

What are constables for and why do we still need them?

Constables exist as counties' official process servers in criminal and civil cases, the bulk of the volume for which comes from unpaid traffic tickets. But when jails are full with more serious offenders, nobody wants constables to do that job, so in Dallas they write more speeding tickets instead, reports ("Texas warrant servers busy running speed traps," 5/11):
In Dallas County, constables have issued $49 million worth of citations even though 92,000 arrest warrants await service. Dallas County Constable Mike Dupree's precinct issues an average of 1700 traffic citations per month. His jurisdiction has 24,000 unserved warrants.

Texas law establishes that constables have all the powers of a peace officer, but their sole duty is to issue warrants. "A constable shall execute and return as provided by law each process, warrant, and precept that is directed to the constable...." (Texas Code, Section 86.021)

In the late 1990s, DeSoto passed a resolution asking the Dallas County constables to stop running speed traps in the city. Constables have flouted the city council's wishes and continue to ticket residents. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told investigators with KTVT-TV that he preferred having constables issue tickets because there isn't enough space in jail for those with a warrant out for their arrest.

"I am going to have to manage the beds I have, and if I have to manage them, then I will give the beds to the more serious offenders," Price said.
I've never given the subject a lot of thought, but it's sure true a lot of constable's deputies spend their days working traffic or even drug interdiction on major highways that run through their jurisdiction rather than actually working as the county's official process server, their sole duty under the statutes.

So if counties don't need constables to perform the job for which they were created, should they still exist in their current form? It seems to me many constables have lost their focus, picking up a haphazard array of duties to try to justify their existence. As a result, only about a third of constable employees actually perform process serving. According to Wikipedia, citing the Census of State and Local Law Enforcement:
In 2000, there were 2,630 full-time deputies and 418 reserve deputies working for the 760 constables’ offices in Texas. Of this number, 35% were primarily assigned to patrol, 33% to serving process, 12% to court security, and 7% to criminal investigations. The Harris County Precinct 4 and 5 Constables’ Offices are the largest constables’ offices in Texas with over 300 deputies each.
Maybe constables have become an anachronism. There might be a cheaper or more efficient way to fulfill process serving duties without having a separate local political office to which nobody pays any attention. At a minimum they should be scaled back to their original purpose. Removing their authority to write traffic tickets would reduce statewide staffing needs for constables by a third.

Those are long-term thoughts, though - limiting constables' authority or altering the scope of the office at minimum would require legislative action and probably a constitutional amendment and voter approval. Meanwhile, I doubt most voters could even name the constable in whose jurisdiction they reside, and I'm pretty sure they aren't aware that most constables spend their time performing tasks besides the ones for which they were elected.

MORE: Mike Engelhart says Harris County's constables peform a valuable service - they just happen to be redundant serives that are mostly performed by others.


Anonymous said...

In probably 90% of the counties, constables exist simply because a retired peace officer ran for the job. They 1) cost counties $, 2) file more lawsuits AGAINST their counties than any other set of elected officials, 3) do nothing not handled by someone else, 4) require a constitutional amendment to get get rid of the office unless it has been vacant for a set number of years (in which case, if you bring it up to get rid of it, someone will run for it). In short, while the metropolitan areas might can use them, most of us would be glad to see them go...But - they have a heck of a lobby!

Anonymous said...

In Harris County, the Constable Mafia gets to "play police", that is pick n' choose which crimes they respond to. They don't get involved in real nasty bloody crimes. The only responde to crime that they can get good publicity off of. Most of them are contract patrol in subdivisions that hire them as personal security guards for wealthy communities that want personal police service. If the county commissioners don't happen to like their local sheriff, they give most of the moiney to the constable yes-men that they can control.
A real nightmare, that should be abolished.

Anonymous said...

In Bexar county they are OUT of Control! Even running radar in school zones. Our local school police have their own radar units! It's time, again, for the lege to take control and MAKE the constables do what they were given authority to do-"serve warrants/process civil paperwork"!

Anonymous said...

Constables can do something very important:

They can lock up the sheriff.

Basically, this is one of those balance-of-powers offices that needs to be managed, not eliminated.

After all, it's the county commissioners who issue the patrol cars and radar guns.

In some counties, constables drive their own cars and serve papers.

If you have constable problems, blame the commissioners who turned them loose.

And for the comment about school district police running radar: That's not legal. They only have authority on campus.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Can you name any instance when a constable has locked up a sheriff? I've seen local police do it, the feds do it, but never a constable.

Anonymous said...

No -- never seen it.

I've only seen the Texas Rangers lock up a sheriff.

But any constable has the authority.

The 1876 Constitution included several balance-of-powers ideas to weaken any single county official.

County commissioners can pick and choose whether and how to equip the sheriff and constables.

Anonymous said...

your article fails to inform your readers that each dallas county constables office has a warrant division that clears on average 1500 warrants a month per pct (5 total) that equals 7500 warrants a month cleared. please tell the whole story!

Anonymous said...

I can tell you Constables are out of control and comitting crimes as bad as the folks who are in jail. Constables are mostly unqualified and operating on the good ol boy system. Some even have criminal records. Red neck politics keep the Constable circus performing.