Sheriff seeks help for warrants
Share with others:
Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held has begun using constables again to help serve warrants because his deputies can't handle them all.
Some magisterial district judges also want to return to a system where they issue warrants to elected constables.
Last summer, then President Judge John Blahovec issued a court order requiring that all bench and arrest warrants issued by magisterial district judges in the county go through the sheriff's office.
Those warrants could be for offenses ranging from serious misdemeanors and felony charges, such as aggravated assault or robbery, to minor ones such as failing to pay old parking fines.
Mr. Held, who took office in January, said the judge's order was the result of concerns over rising costs to the county of constable fees.
Two district judges said they would like to return to the old system.
"I had five constables working out of my office who did a terrific job," said Greensburg District Judge James Albert.
"They live in the area, knew many of the people and could get to them quickly and bring them into my office," he said.
"We had 50 or 60 constables working in the county and now you have six sheriff's deputies doing that work. I didn't agree with the court order; my personal feeling is that district judges are given the authority to issue these warrants.
"The sheriff's office is swamped, and so there are more delays now. I have thousands of outstanding warrants in my office, and my secretaries have yet to send 1,500 warrants to the sheriff's office," he said.
Judge Albert said he understands the county wants to control costs, and said a few constables abused the system by submitting extra mileage, resulting in the county taking the drastic step.
"I think a fair compromise would be to give the district judges the prerogative of using constables," he said.
District Judge Frank Pallone of New Kensington believes state law governing the court system gives district magistrates the authority to issue warrants. But he said the district judges were reluctant to challenge the county's court order.
"None of us have a problem with using a central control system where there are records of all warrants issued," Mr. Pallone said. "But we should have the freedom to give warrants to the local constables. That authority is given to us under state statue."
He has almost 1,000 outstanding warrants and about 300 more that haven't been put into the system yet.
There are about 60 constables in the county, Mr. Held said, but only 35 have state certification, which is required to work for the court system. To receive state certification, constables must undergo annual updates for firearms training and legal issues.
Constables are elected in their home municipality but their fees are set by the state.
Mr. Held said a constable fee for serving a warrant for traffic fines would be $35, plus mileage for gas, or from $40 to $45. If a constable takes someone to jail, the fee would be about $80, he said.
Mr. Held said using constables is a cost-effective way to serve warrants, adding that to hire a new deputy sheriff would cost taxpayers about $47,000 in salary and benefits. Mr. Held was a constable for 16 years before being elected sheriff last year.
The sheriff said he needs to use constables to supplement the six deputy sheriffs in his office who serve criminal and civil warrants on a full-time basis. He said the sheriff's office was not given more money for deputies when it assumed the added responsibility for serving most warrants.
Judge Blahovec's order also contained 12 procedures for the centralized warrant control system. It listed several new procedures to help reduce costs, including limiting constables to two attempts to serve a warrant and advising district judges to combine cases involving the same defendant.
Elected constables are not happy with the new system of funneling all warrants through the sheriff's office. Many made their living serving warrants through a district judge's office.
Mr. Held met with about 20 constables from Westmoreland, Fayette and Allegheny counties, and state Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, in Ligonier last week to discuss the issue.
Many of the elected constables felt "a few bad apples" were giving them a poor image and they want more work in the county.
Mr. Held didn't know of any specific abuses that led to the court order, but said a married couple, both constables from Jeannette, was charged in 2007 with trying to collect fees for transporting defendants to a district court when they had only served papers at the defendants' houses.
Mr. Held also said there may have been some constables who were unprofessional in dress, "who served warrants in shorts and a T-shirt."
District Attorney John Peck said his office has had no recent cases of fraud or abuse by constables.
Mr. Held said some of the judges like using his deputy sheriffs. "They like us because our deputy sheriffs are more professional," he said.
Mr. Held said that while the county was charged with about $250,000 in expenses for constables last year, it recovered about $170,000 of that when a defendant paid court costs related to the offense and warrant. The state also receives some of those court costs payments.
When he came into office this year, Mr. Held sent letters to all 17 district judges in the county, asking them what constables they would like to use if the sheriff's office could not serve their warrants.
Judge Blahovec's order allows the sheriff's department to use constables if needed, but Mr. Held said out of respect, he conferred with Judge Blahovec and current President Judge Gary Caruso -- as well as the court administrator, commissioners and the controller -- before beginning to use constables about two weeks ago.
First Published July 26, 2012 4:40 am