Pennsylvania Supreme Court sets rules for constables

Controversies here led to changes

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Seeking to professionalize a system that has lacked a set of rules and guidelines, the state Supreme Court on Tuesday released new standards to govern constables who work across Pennsylvania.

The group -- which includes about 1,200 people in the state and as many as 150 in Allegheny County -- is responsible for, among other things, providing security to magisterial district courts, transporting prisoners and serving arrest warrants.

They are quasi-law enforcement officers who in recent years have come under criticism in Pittsburgh for overstepping their boundaries.

"They're doing a very dangerous job," said Magisterial District Judge Richard Opiela, chairman of Allegheny County's constable advisory board who participated in a statewide committee that looked at the constable system.

The statewide committee included judges from magisterial and common pleas courts, administrators and constables from across Pennsylvania. They met several times over a two-year period.

Among the new requirements in the policies announced Tuesday: Constables must transport prisoners in cars that have a permanent cage separating the front and back seats; they must wear clothing that clearly identifies them as constables carrying out judicial duties; and when transporting a prisoner, at least one constable must be certified and carry a firearm.

"I'm not saying some of these things aren't common sense, but in the past, they weren't very well laid out," Judge Opiela said.

The policies released Tuesday come nearly a year after Allegheny County announced the creation of a 59-page handbook designed to give local constables specific instructions to follow in their work.

"By and large, most of them have bought in to it," Judge Opiela said. "I haven't seen a constable showing up in flip-flops."

Constables in Pennsylvania, he said, are becoming more professional "slowly but surely. I wanted it faster, but there are a lot of nuances."

Aside from the president judge in each county, constables have no real supervision, he continued, so implementing guidelines was important.

But one of the difficulties, Judge Opiela said, is that in Western Pennsylvania constables do primarily criminal work, while in Eastern Pennsylvania they do mostly civil process.

"You need to know all these things," he said. "You need to be diversified."

They can either be elected, deputized or appointed and are not direct employees of the court, but instead work on a contract basis.

The request to study the issue came from state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille in 2010.

"Constables who want to work for the courts will need to adhere to the rules with regard to qualifications, education, standards of conduct, and security and vehicle requirements as well as any local policies and procedures enacted by president judges," he said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Thomas Impink, president of the Pennsylvania State Constables Association, served on the statewide committee but said he has not seen the final product and would not comment.

The county handbook was created at the request of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who serves as the administrative judge in the criminal division.

It came following Judge Manning's removal of a deputy constable for what the jurist called "hooliganism and thuggery."

Judge Manning removed Derek Vasser, a Rankin deputy constable, after he entered a woman's home with no legal authority, handcuffed and threatened her in one instance, and in another broke down the door of a home and handcuffed two people who were not suspects.

Last month, an off-duty constable shot a man to death in East Hills while trying to calm a domestic dispute between his girlfriend's mother and her fiance, Leon Wilson.

During the dispute, Wilson shot his fiancee's 19-year-old son, and the constable fired several shots, killing Wilson. The constable has not been charged.

"Ninety-nine percent of the constables were good people doing a good job," Judge Manning said. "It was the small percentage we needed to control."

In the past, some elected constables did no work, serving only in a political fashion, he said. They instead hired deputies to carry out their duties.

"The constable is an anomaly. It was almost an honorary position. There's none of that now," the judge said.

He cited the new standards, which require continuing education and training.

"We know they're abiding by all the rules in the handbook," Judge Manning said, "because the magistrates have not reported any incidents to us."

Judge Opiela agreed.

"I think they're out there working hard and trying. I think the message is getting out."

In addition to creating new policies and procedures, Justice Castille also forwarded a number of recommendations to the state House Judiciary Committee for items that he thinks should be addressed legislatively.

Those included: creating uniformity in how constables are paid and in the type of political activity they may engage in; deciding whether they should be permitted to serve with a first-degree misdemeanor conviction; prohibiting service if they have been required to register as a sex offender; and regulating the types of uniforms they should wear.

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Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620.


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