AP: Abuses by Pa. constables persist; reform urged


Jul 30, 12:25 AM EDT

AP: Abuses by Pa. constables persist; reform urged

By MARK SCOLFORO /Associated Press Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Valerie Hubbard was half asleep in her 11-year-old son’s bedroom just before midnight – they had been watching “Ratatouille” on DVD – when three constables crashed through the locked first-floor door of her apartment house.

She did not know they were there to arrest her for unpaid parking tickets.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “They made me feel like I was a real criminal, like I had done this terrible thing.”

In 1998, state prosecutors asked the Pennsylvania Legislature to regulate and rein in constables, citing complaints around the state of constables being too heavy-handed or in many cases acting criminally. But lawmakers balked; constables are independent contractors who are elected locally and carry out work for local judges, and they did not want to interfere with local control.

Ten years later, despite some local tightening of regulations, the system remains plagued by problems that continue to demonstrate a need for reform, The Associated Press found.

In a review of court records, government files and news accounts, the AP was able to identify dozens of cases of serious misconduct by constables over the past decade. And in interviews with judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and county government officials, the AP found widespread belief the system remains wide open to abuse by armed constables who operate with minimal training and little oversight.

There are virtually no qualifications to hold the office, a vital cog in Pennsylvania’s justice system. Constable duties include making arrests for warrants, serving civil papers and transporting prisoners for the low-level district courts.

Training and equipment are often far below police standards. The constables’ unusual legal status as independent contractors means they exercise considerable legal authority with virtually no supervision or accountability.

Many judges, prosecutors and police officers believe oversight and standards are too weak – and some of the state’s longest-serving and most respected constables agree.

“The good constables, which are the majority, want those bad apples out,” said Chuck Benhayon, a Bucks County constable who serves on the Constables’ Education and Training Board. “Any time you have people in power you’re going to have problems.”

Some also worry about unreported abuses.

“Their work is very hidden, and they deal with individuals within the criminal justice system who don’t have much lobby power, influence or sympathy,” said Blair County President Judge Jolene Kopriva, interviewed during a canvass of county judges. “So they are individuals who can be taken advantage of easily. Not many people would care.”

A LITANY OF ABUSES

The AP found cases over the past decade in which constables have been caught molesting children, having sex with prisoners and stealing court funds. One was apprehended by the attorney general’s child predator unit seeking a sexual liaison with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl.

Constables have been convicted of federal weapons and tax evasion charges. A Johnstown constable was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and an Erie constable was barred from performing court work after being accused of discriminating against blacks.

A constable in Altoona accidentally discharged his gun inside a courtroom, several have been accused of threatening people with weapons, a veteran Butler County constable died of a heroin overdose and several constables have been accused of illegally impersonating police, even pulling over motorists.

The 1966 shooting of a fellow Marine during the Vietnam War by the president of Chester County’s constable association surfaced in 2000 when authorities realized that the man – who also was mayor of tiny Modena borough – should not be carrying a gun.

Ron Meyers Jr. shot a friend in the shoulder and then killed himself in 2006, two-and-a-half years after he had been elected Northampton borough constable in on the strength of 16 votes. The local district justice, who remembered Meyers’ criminal record for passing bad checks, refused to swear him in or give him any court work, but that did not prevent him from taking office.

Five years ago in Ford City, about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, 21-year-old Constable James W. Schaffhauser murdered his girlfriend – shooting her five times in the head and chest – and then killed himself over the breakup of their two-month relationship. Schaffhauser, a mall security guard, was described by the coroner as a “cop wannabe” who adorned his ammunition-stocked home with police memorabilia.

Article Continued

3 responses to “AP: Abuses by Pa. constables persist; reform urged

  1. former constable

    As a former constable in pennsylvania I can say that there are those elected or appointed to the office that are bad representatives the same as those of any other public service office. District Justice, Mayor, Judge, District Attorney…ect.
    For the most part the people that take up the mantle of being a constable risk their lives, moreso than many police officers on a daily basis. Warrant service all day every day bring you into contact with potential situations more often than the police that have other duties less dangerous and violatile. The police have a salary, benefits, a union, and back up. Things that constables do not. Additionally police have better training, equipment, and legal representation should there be an issue or a question to assist them in their job serving the community where they live. Yes there have been many constables that have made bad decisions and besmirched the reputation of the rest of those holding the office but consider what they are working with. Constables didnt get a pay raise for TEN years. They pay for their own equipment and do not get paid during the mandated training (which is inadequate in my opinion) they are required to maintain a bond and insurance which they also pay out of their own pockets. They have no legal representation, their lobby is based on the state association which is at times self serving. A constable risks his or her life without ever being guaranteed payment for the job that they do. If I serve a warrant on someone and they are indigent (cant afford to pay) even though there are stipulations within the law to get me paid the county government balks at losing that revenue so for the most part its a waste of time to even file the remittance forms. I’ve wasted hours of my day and my own fuel transporting someone that i’ll never be paid for. What cop would do that? Judge? Lawmaker? Now consider this…that same person could shoot me as I knock on their door. (this has happened to several constables serving process or warrants). I dont bring up these issues to condone those that have warranted the outcry for constable reform. But for those that have kept silent..the constables taking the heat for all of those cowboys and rambo types. The men and women that put their lives on the line every single day because they have sworn an oath just like the sherriff or police officer, the probation officer or the medical professional. To keep their community safe by bringing people forth to be judged for crimes that they have committed. To evict people from their homes that refuse to pay the property owner the rent they are do. Yes the constable system needs alot of reform. But I doubt that any reform will bring it up to the point where constables need it to be in order for them to be safer, guarantee them work and pay, and help them offset the cost for equipment and insurance costs prior to making a penny.

  2. As an Elected Constable in my bailwick with the highest vote of any other candidate for local office in my muncipality I will be serving my fourth six year term.I was there in the 70s when Constables were respected as Peace Officers (Not Police Officers)the same as the Sheriffs of the County, and that power has’nt changed (It’s Constitutional). My situation is diffrent due to the fact I’m a former Police Officer, Police Chief, Deputy Sheriff, and for a while an assistant County Detective. I was fortunate because as a Police Officer we were trained by the State Police. I have gone through the Constable Certification training, and yearly updates that the PCCD has in place, and year after year it’s the same thing over and over to the point it’s boring, and a waste of time and money but it keeps the College’s going.The problem is they the PCCD calls anything that is suggested for the criteria of Constable training by sitting Constables through suggestion a grey area.Thats one reason that Constables sometimes go astray instead of telling them there true Powers and school them on the do’es and don’ts of properly using the power ,they tab it with the handle it’s a grey area.Yes there are Constables that should not be there, but in my career Iv’e seen a lot of Police Officers that should’nt be there and per capita there are more Police Officers, Judges, and other elected Officials astray of the rights and wrong’s than Constables. If you don’t believe me look at Luzerne County as an example and with that said the good Constable takes the rap for a few sour apples in the bin. Too many so called superior Constabes instead of working with his fellow Constable to better the system just sits back and bad mouths his fellow brother they seem to know it all. If they want to know the power of the Constable read the State Constitution under Common law arrest powers pertaining to Sheriffs and the Constables of the countys and several Boroughs of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania(As elected Peace Officers) and the only one that could change that is the people by referendem on the election ballet statewide. The PCCD only applies restrictions and training for Constables that serve the State judicial system and only that. They cannot set criteria and restrictions on the elected Constable (though they try to).The only one that can is the people that elect them because that is there only boss, the same as the Governor, a Senator, or Congressman , if an elected Constable breaks the law and is found guilty of a serious crime then a Judge can dismiss him of his office.I’m sorry to say but the Constitution cannot be over ridden by Statute Laws,and therefore the sooner every so called proffessor thats thinks there smarter then it wise’s up and tells the legislatures to accept that fact and properly train them the system won’t work.They already know that and thats why they can’t change it but they could end up on the wrong end of a Federal discrimination Lawsuit for depriving an elected offical the right to perform the duties they were elected to do by Constitution.Under Pa. Title 18 Crimes Code (Official Oppression) it states you can’t interfere with an elected official working in the scope of his duties as an elected official.A Peace Officer,( a Constable can arrest for Breaches of the Peace,Felonies commited in his view, and any act that would put any citizen in peril in his view It also states an Elected official must do the job he’s elected to do and if not can be prosecuted for failure to perform his duty, so be careful Elected Constable. I would also like to point out fact the only law enforcement officers with Constitutional Arrest powers are Sheriffs, and Constables, all other Police in the Commonwealth receive there arrest powers by Statute and are deemed Ex-Officio Constables and that is fact so with that said if they could get rid of the Constable where would they they get there arrest powers from(THE CONSTITUTION) doe’s not recognize them,but then again they could infringe on the Sheriffs arrest powers, and then if they got rid of the Sheriffs we would have to bring back our forefathers to rewrite something like the Constitution and include them. The Sheriffs and Constables are the peoples law enforcment officers and are the last line of protection the people have and thats why it won’t change the people won’t let it. As Constable we should try and police up our own ranks and we could weed out some of the bad eggs but until the legislatures uphold the Constitution and educate the elected Constabules like other Countrys,and States it won’t work. If any body reading what I just wrote dos’ent belive it’s fact check the New York Supreme Court ruling under State of New York vs Pa. Constable Manuel Rodriques, and thats case law.

  3. HOW DO I FILE A COMPLAINT AGAINST A CONSTABLE THAT LIED TO BENEFIT MY X WIFE .IN A CHILD CUSTODY MATTER .HE WORKS OUT OF HER BOSSES MAGISTRATES OFFICE IN UNIONTOWN PA.

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