State constable role in commonwealth debated
PITTSBURGH (AP) — There’s never a dull day for Adam Kujawa.
Whether it’s talking to people in Pittsburgh neighborhoods or navigating the back roads of Fayette and Westmoreland counties, the Mt. Pleasant constable loves it all.
“It’s basically a day-to-day adventure,” he said.
He dons his vest with an embroidered patch identifying him as a Pennsylvania State Constable and serves paperwork from magistrates in the three counties. He has worked in the elected position since 2011, sometimes in dangerous situations.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do,” he said. “Six days a week, I’m out the door working.”
Constables are getting less training starting this year under several cost-cutting measures Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency officials put into effect to ration a fund that was being depleted.
At the same time, opposing proposed state legislation targeting constables could either create oversight at the county level or eliminate the position altogether.
The role of constable has been fraught with controversy locally in recent years. Westmoreland County officials stripped some duties from them, and Allegheny County officials created a guidebook for how constables should operate.
Some constables expressed frustration that the same level of camaraderie with police and amount of work they experience in other counties doesn’t exist in Westmoreland.
“You have guys that want to do this job, they’re passionate about it, but they’re not able to get the work,” said Kevin O’Donnell, president of the Westmoreland County Constables Association. “The work’s not there in the quantity it should be.”
What they do
Constables are independent contractors who earn money by completing tasks that vary based on the county where they work. Constables are elected for a six-year term where they live, but they can work for district courts anywhere in the state.
They pay for their own uniforms, vehicles, weapons, insurance and other needs.
“The taxpayers don’t have to pay anything to do with me. . I’m self-employed,” said Constable Glenn Wolfgang of Manor. “The criminal has to pay to get arrested or get transported.”
They can serve arrest warrants, handle landlord-tenant complaints and work security at magistrates across the state.
A fee schedule dictates what constables can charge. Examples include $13 to serve someone with a notice and $90 to eject a tenant from a property.
Some fees are paid by the person who filed the court action. In a landlord-tenant complaint, the plaintiff pre-pays the fees and the constable is reimbursed through the district court.
If they’re serving a warrant, the constables’ fees are assessed to the defendants, who then must pay within 15 days. The county can pre-pay constables for that work, and the defendants are expected to reimburse the county.
State law permits constables limited arrest powers and requires that constables keep peace at the polls during elections.
The number of constables in a municipality does not correlate with the amount of residents. For example, Jeannette, New Kensington and Latrobe each have six constables. Hempfield has one, while Rostraver and North Huntingdon each have two. Lower Burrell has four.
In municipalities with ward systems, typically boroughs and cities, one constable is elected in each ward. In places like townships, one or two constables have to visit numerous polling places.
When that happens, a constable can visit multiple places during elections or hire a deputy to help, said Beth Lechman, director of the Westmoreland County Elections Bureau. Some constables can’t fulfill those duties because of full-time jobs or other responsibilities.
“We don’t have one elected for every district,” she said. “They will show up and stay as long as they can.”
If there’s a problem at a precinct that is not staffed by a constable, the judge of elections requests someone from the county or calls police, Lechman said.
Constables get paid $95 for elections no matter how many precincts they visit.
By the numbers
There are about 1,700 constables statewide registered with the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency. About 1,000 of those have completed training through the commission to do court-related work. They have to complete 80 hours of basic training for an initial certification and 40 additional hours to carry a firearm, said Kirsten Kenyon, commission spokeswoman. One basic training class will be offered this year.
To remain certified, constables each year must complete eight hours of continuing education classes and four hours of firearms training, she said. Those amounts all decreased this year. An online platform for continuing education will be in place in 2020.
There are 28 Westmoreland constables registered with the state and 133 in Allegheny County. The majority are certified to carry a firearm while performing their constable duties.
In November, 116 constables were elected in Westmoreland County. About half of them won with write-in votes — some with only a single vote.
Though the Commission on Crime and Delinquency conducts training, the commission does not oversee constables.
Serving a need
A 2011 court order in Westmoreland County ended a practice that permitted constables to serve arrest warrants through district courts. The order required all criminal, traffic and non-traffic arrest warrants be processed through a central repository — the sheriff’s department.
As a result, Sheriff Jonathan Held said, he instituted a registration process for constables who wanted to serve warrants to prevent them from having hundreds of warrants and wrong arrests. He would issue 10 warrants at a time, mostly for traffic and non-traffic offenses.
One constable is registered but doesn’t do much work, he said.
Constable Brian Barbieri of Lower Burrell works with district courts in northeastern Westmoreland County. Before the court order, he used to be busy.
“We got down to that office at 8 a.m., and we worked all day,” Barbieri said.
Now, it’s hit or miss.
“The courts can’t work without us,” he said. “The sheriff’s (deputies) can’t handle the work. If they eliminate us, it would cost more money.”
The current system is frustrating to District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr., who has seen the number of warrants skyrocket at his New Kensington office.
Pallone said that as of October 2011, he had 854 outstanding warrants. As of Dec. 31, 2018, he had 2,684 warrants that hadn’t been served.
It’s important to him and District Judge Roger Eckels in Norvelt to oversee constables who work out of their offices and make sure they’re doing the job right.
“There’s just not enough officers up there at the sheriff’s office to do this,” said Eckels, who retired recently. “I think it’s a flawed system right now. The constables know everybody in their area.”
The sheriff’s department received just over 20,700 warrants in 2017 and more than 23,000 last year, Held said. Currently, there are more than 29,000 outstanding warrants — the majority for summary offenses in which a defendant lives out-of-state and isn’t subject to extradition.
Held said his deputies already handle some of the civil action for district judges who don’t use constables. There are 77 deputies. All deal with arrest warrants at some point, but eight are specifically assigned.
“We would be able to handle all of the (district court) civil process, but may need to add a deputy or two to the office to do so,” Held said.
In Philadelphia, police and traffic court handle the duties of constables, which were eliminated decades ago. Yet the positions remain in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. At least one legislator hopes to end that.
State Rep. Barry Jozwiak, a Berks County Republican, wants to get rid of the constable position through attrition and hand the duties over to sheriff’s departments.
“They’re really becoming obsolete,” said Jozwiak, a retired state trooper and former sheriff. “We don’t need them anymore. The sheriff can do it.”
Held said it’s “too easy” to become a constable. Requiring them to get more votes or signatures on a petition could be an option. He served as a constable for 16 years prior to his election as sheriff, working mainly in Allegheny County.
“In the mid-1990s, the constable system was improved greatly by the implementation of mandatory registration, training and professional liability insurance,” he said in a statement. “Now, 20 years later, it is time for more improvements in the position of constable to increase both professionalism and accountability.”
Some of that accountability is part of a measure the Commonwealth Constables Association has been working on.
Proposed legislation would create standards for constables to align them more closely with what is required of law enforcement officers, such as mandatory physical and psychological exams, said Joshua Stouch, association legislative director. Also, it calls for the creation of constable review boards in each county, similar to a citizen’s review board that can receive and investigate complaints about police, among other duties.
“All we need is some minor reform,” said Stouch, who worked on the matter with assistant legislative director Jose Colon. “We are simply asking for oversight.”
Amendments to the Constable Education and Training Act proposed by the association would create a background check for constables prior to being certified by the state, Stouch said. That measure would be similar to what is required of law enforcement officers.
One proposed amendment would increase a fee associated with filing court paperwork that a constable serves. That proposed increase — from $5 to at least $9 — would bolster the Commission on Crime and Delinquency fund that pays for training, Stouch said.
“It is crucial . to the constabulary that this bill go through and that the fees be increased,” he said.
The Westmoreland County Constables Association has adopted the handbook that was created to guide the work of constables in Allegheny County. The lengthy handbook outlines rules constables should follow while on the job.
Allegheny County’s constable advisory board, created in 2010, recommends policies on the position and consists of several elected officials.
O’Donnell, the Westmoreland association president who lives in Penn Township, hopes to have an edited version of it and a similar advisory board put in place.
He works in Allegheny County but wants an opportunity for constables elected in Westmoreland to stay in their home county.
“You have to go out and show that you are effective in what you do,” he said. “When you do that, you start getting more work.”
Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com