A Litany Of Abuses,First of two parts
By MARK SCOLFORO
Associated Press Writer
HARRISBURG -- 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.
In a highly publicized 2003 incident, constables serving a warrant for a couple dozen unpaid parking tickets killed three dogs in an 11-bullet fusillade unleashed inside an Allentown home. The house was occupied at the time by several adults and three children, none of them injured. The subsequent federal civil-rights lawsuit was settled for $320,000.
And in Harrisburg, Constable Peter J. Wirs served jail time for theft after police charged him in 1998 with fraud in ordering 23 Crown Victorias from a car dealership as he embarked on a bizarre effort to expand the traditional duties of constables by investigating prostitution and pulling over motorists.
State law allows for removal of constables by county president judges under certain circumstances, but the procedure is rarely used. Some believe the existing removal procedure would help address the problems if it were employed more often.
"I don't think anybody wants to get involved, to be honest with you," said Thornton Constable Jack Esher, president of the Pennsylvania State Constables Association. "I think the process for fixing it is already in place. I think that they're just not doing it."
The precise number of constables who hold office in Pennsylvania, like much about the current system, is unclear. Ten years ago, the National Constables Association counted some 6,000 Pennsylvania constables among nearly 13,000 nationwide.
Only about 1,200 Pennsylvania constables have completed the training and maintained the liability insurance required to perform court-related duties, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. About 800 others have voluntarily registered with the commission but are not certified for court work.
Perhaps as many as a couple thousand more have been elected in local races and qualify for special "peace officer" arrest powers under state law. They are entitled to serve as paid security at polling places on election day, but without state training and certification they cannot work for the courts.
Some were elected by just a few write-in votes they did not solicit and have no interest in the job.
However many there are, constables are independent contractors under a 1991 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that moved them out of the judiciary and into the executive branch.
Their duties are spelled out in state law, and some counties have imposed their own sets of regulations. They operate throughout the state, although Philadelphia uses a different system and in two small counties, Forest and Sullivan, no local constables currently hold office.
The high court ruling, which dealt with separation-of-powers concerns, landed constables in a sort of regulatory no-man's-land and has complicated efforts to deal with problems such as fraudulent billing, residency issues, conflicts of interest and compliance with ethics disclosure rules.
In 2006, 973 constables failed to file the required statement of financial interests with the State Ethics Commission, and the ethics board had to initiate 40 enforcement actions. Twenty-seven cases landed in Commonwealth Court.
The state crime commission oversees what limited training currently exists: 120 hours for new constables who also want to carry a gun -- compared with the more than 750 hours of basic training required for both deputy sheriffs and police officers.
The position of constable is a remnant of Colonial times -- they served as the only law enforcement officers in many of the state's remote areas until the state police were established early in the 20th century. They are elected to six-year terms.
At What Price?
For all the problems with constables, court officials describe most of them as honest and hardworking, and there is agreement that increased training requirements have improved their level of professionalism over the past 15 years.
They handle a massive amount of work for the district judges, who preside over traffic cases, less serious crime and minor civil disputes and arraign and set bail for those accused of more significant offenses.
"Every county that utilizes constables (is) getting more than their money's worth," said Esher, head of the constables' association. "Otherwise, they wouldn't be giving them the work that they're giving them."
But critics argue the constable system has long outlived its usefulness, calling it prone to corruption, inefficient and so deeply flawed that it ought to be scrapped and its duties and $30 million annual cost turned over to county sheriffs' offices.
"There are some people out there doing a good job, but the system itself doesn't work," said Bruce Edwards, president of the state troopers' union. "It doesn't need to be overhauled, it needs to be gotten rid of."
Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the search for an alternative approach has run into a major problem -- finding a branch of government willing to supervise constables.
"The last time this was considered, we said we don't want to do it," Hill said. "The sheriffs don't. The courts don't. The district attorneys don't."
No Statewide Standards
Constables are elected in the area where they live but can work anywhere in the state. They get work through the district judges, and a successful constable will often work for several judges at one time.
The judges are also elected -- some are themselves former constables -- and many critics say the interdependent relationship between the two offices can become problematic. Constables rely on judges for work, judges need constables to get their papers served, and the two often draw from similar bases of political support.
"I don't think (the judges) really do a very good job of screening and determining qualifications," said Royce L. Morris, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"There could be nepotism going on there," he said. "The constable could be related to a friend or family member" of the judge.
Under state law, constables are paid according to a schedule that, for example, gives them $38 to transport an incarcerated prisoner -- plus mileage and $13 an hour -- and $25 to serve a criminal warrant. Most of their payments come from court fees paid by defendants.
Despite having to pay their own overhead, some constables do quite well under the current system: an AP analysis of Pennsylvania court system records showed 33 constables earned at least $70,000 last year. Ten earned more than $100,000.
The rules under which they operate are a quintessentially Pennsylvanian patchwork. In fact, a $300,000 consultant to the crime commission in November recommended more standardized job descriptions, procedures, equipment and warrant tracking methods.
After surveying hundreds of constables, Fairfax, Va.-based Caliber wrote that there was widespread disagreement about the limits of their power "yet a clear understanding of power and duty is a fundamental element of sound law enforcement work."
Those recommendations have not been adopted.
Thursday: Barriers against reform.