Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dallas News: De-fund constables, then eliminate them

The Dallas News this week published an editorial advocating for de-funding Dallas County constables, shifting as many of their functions and as much of their budget as possible to the Sheriff, and seeking their outright abolition through a constitutional amendment in 2013. Said the editorial ("Time to unplug constables?," May 20):
The county has evidence that at least 36 deputies may have lied about attempts to serve residents with eviction notices or documents regarding other civil actions. If the accusations are true, residents have been penalized — in some cases, kicked out of their homes — without proper notification, and taxpayers countywide have been paying salaries of deputies who are lazy or incompetent.

The law gives the county commissioners so little authority here that all they can do is urge the elected constables not to look the other way.

At the very least, the deputies — who represent more than half of the 70 who serve civil papers — should be placed on paid administrative leave until the investigation is completed. Depending on the results, resignations, firings or prosecutions may be in order.

But this would only address the latest in an outrageous pattern of behavior in the constable offices that stretches over the past decade. In that time, news stories have documented towing irregularities, campaign contribution scandals and assorted charges of DWI charges, sexual assault and bribery.

Although the constables have proved themselves incapable of legally and effectively managing their operations, this branch of county government can’t be eliminated without the time-consuming process of passing a constitutional amendment.

Beginning immediately, the Commissioners Court can begin dismantling these virtually unaccountable fiefdoms by cutting the constables’ budgets and shifting essential duties to the sheriff’s department.
Grits has long considered constables a pointless anachronism. Their primary function is supposedly serving civil papers, but on paper and in reality they're full-blown peace officers with the same authority as sheriff's deputies or municipal cops. Many constables have evolved into sizable, autonomous, mini-police departments, where mission creep has expanded their role to mimic (and thus duplicate) the day-to-day work of municipal police and sheriffs, but often with a much lower level of professionalism and accountability. Such redundancies are the source of Grits' usual objections, but this scandal takes the issue to a whole new level, with more than half the Dallas deputy constables who're supposed to be performing that primary function allegedly claiming to do the work but just spending time at the donut shop, perhaps the golf course, etc.. The idea that people were kicked out of their homes without ever receiving eviction notices is a particularly horrifying result.

Summer is budget-making season for counties across the state, who generally prepare their annual budgets over the summer for approval in September. So in the coming months there will be an opportunity to strip down Dallas constable budgets to bolster funding at the Sheriff's department or perhaps shift to other priorities. Most of what they do can be performed by other agencies, and should be. The serving of civil papers is their only function that's not redundant with other agencies, and in Dallas they're apparently not even doing that worth a damn.


Anonymous said...

Constable 5, Travis County, Bruce Elfant, more than earns his keep. Great office. I'm sure the basically unregulated private process industry would love the elimination (as opposed to reform) of all constables.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'll bet your boss appreciates the kudos, 9:10.

Kenneth D. Franks said...

Actually in a small county we like having an elected constable. However it is completely different when there aren't deputy constables. We are talking about only three individuals from different parts of the county that know the people in the part of the county they work. Unlike the law enforcement officers that come and go regularly from the sheriff's office and even the two police departments. Our constables have lived here most of their life and know the citizens.

Anonymous said...

@grits at 9:19am - not an employee of Cstble 5, just the beneficiary of their quality work - primarily on domestic violence issues - constables serve protective orders which are civil in nature - an important function.

That there is a counter-example to the Dallas morass shouldn't surprise you. You may be right on the larger policy question, but it's certainly not a black and white issue.

Rugbyman78666 said...

In HAys COunty we are blssed with some good ones. I use them in my practice all the time.

Rule follower said...

There are excellent Constables all over Texas. Hopefully, the Dallas News is not trying to group those who follow the rules with those who don't.

Anonymous said...

Constable Ron Hickman, Precinct 4, Harris County, has misused his letterhead in connection with non-official business.

In 2003 then-Harris County Precinct 7 Constable Perry Wooten got caught literally selling badges for $50 each. He was accused of running a time-sheet scam in which he allegedly used deputies on duty to chauffeur him around, run his personal errands and sit with him while he watched television. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in the big house.

It is an open secret around the courthouse that returns of service filed by his deputies during the Wooten era should be taken with a grain of salt. I know of one case where a defendant was sued, was never served, and a judgment was fraudulently taken against him. The officer's return showed service at an address where my friend never lived.

Constable Ron Hickman, Precinct 4, Harris County, has wrongfully seized property not belonging to judgment debtors. One of his deputies received a writ of execution, went out to a completely different business and proceeded to intimidate this innocent third party into paying the judgment. That's called extortion.

After delivering a check t the deputy, the innocent third party filed a motion in the justice court for a return of the improperly-obtained funds. Judge Andell heard the motion and ordered Camus to return the money. Camus refused, and remitted the (stolen) money to the judgment creditor.

In my own practice I use private process servers whenever possible because I got fed up with constables either incorrectly serving the paper, leaving it with someone other than the proper agent for service, and improperly filling out returns of services.

For several years the law allowed only sheriffs and constables to serve writs of garnishment. Almost all returns of service of writs of garnishment were improperly filled out, requiring that I draft a proper return of service and send it back to the constable for his signature. Since service cannot be waived in a garnishment action, it means that the case can be tossed. Think about that for a moment: for several years (1997 - 2005) in Texas almost all writs of garnishment were capable of being quashed due to shoddy service by constables.

After the Texas Supreme Court amended Texas Rules of Civil Procedure in 2005, I now use private process servers for writs of garnishment and have never had a problem.

Anonymous said...

>Constable Ron Hickman, Precinct 4, Harris County, has wrongfully seized property not belonging to judgment debtors.


That should read "Constable Phil Camus, Precinct 5, Harris County,..."

It is late and I should know better than to post comments when i am this tired.