A “compromise” bill that would allow local governments to limit duties of constables by ordinance has passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
The legislation, Senate Bill 30, which originally sought a constitutional amendment to abolish the office, would give fiscal courts and merged governments more authority over the roles of constables.
Local governments could not abolish the office outright, though, and must leave at least one duty for the elected peace officers.
Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson, who’s also president of the Kentucky Association of Counties, said the roles of constables vary by county. While some KACo members support eliminating the office, others see it as a useful arm of local government, Wilson said.
“With so many divergent opinions across the state, we feel that a local option is the fairest in order to accommodate home rule as well as increasing local jurisdictions’ authorities over an office that currently answers to no one,” he told the committee Wednesday.
Wilson noted that constables aren’t required to complete training and, in some cases, seem to abuse their authority.
He told the panel that two constables in Garrard County bought radar guns at Radio Shack and began pulling people over and writing traffic tickets without proper training two years ago.
One of the constables had his car’s blue emergency lights on at his home during the early morning hours one day, and a neighbor called police dispatch to have the lights turned off.
The constable went to the neighbor’s home and “by the end of the night, the caller was in handcuffs on the ground in front of the constable’s car,” Wilson said.
“My constituents were calling and saying, ‘What are you going to do, judge, to stop this?’” he said. “The reality is there’s nothing I can do to stop it, and our insurance policy through KACo, our premiums have to cover these things that we have no control over.”
In Louisville, a constable faces felony assault and wanton endangerment charges after shooting and injuring a suspected shoplifter outside Walmart as she was fleeing in a truck. David Whitlock, the constable who was charged, has pleaded not guilty.
Constables, who have the same law enforcement powers as sheriffs, are largely fee-based officers who earn money mainly by serving warrants, summonses and other court papers.
Franklin County has six constables, and most have traditionally taken other jobs to supplement their income from fees, such as providing security at Paul Sawyier Public Library, handling some patrols at Kentucky State University and manning school and church crossings.
Fiscal Court has some oversight over constables, requiring them to maintain car insurance if they install blue lights on their private vehicles, County Attorney Rick Sparks said.
Other more arcane duties in state law include picking up a vagrant, which pays 50 cents; killing and burying “distempered” horses at $3 per head and cattle at $2 per head; and neutering horses, bulls or donkeys for a $1 fee.
The office is a holdover from a bygone era when county fiscal courts operated more like actual courts. The legislature has recently considered bills to abolish the office, and a constitutional amendment that would eliminate constables passed the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee Monday.
Sen. Julie Denton, sponsor of Senate Bill 30, called the bill a good compromise between abolishing the office and better regulating it.
“I think it will pass,” Denton, a Louisville Republican, said of the bill’s chances in the Senate and House after the meeting. She noted various organizations – including KACo, the Kentucky League of Cities and affiliate associations covering judge-executives, sheriffs, county attorneys, magistrates, jailers, police chiefs and others – support it.
“… The only people who aren’t, I think, would be the constables who are maybe not performing up to par, but those who are doing a good job have nothing to fear.”
Any change in constables’ compensation wouldn’t take effect until after their current term expires, she said.
Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown and chair of the committee, said the proposal has a better chance of passage than a constitutional amendment.
“I know that the constitutional amendment to abolish it altogether probably doesn’t enjoy the kind of support necessary to move forward, but I think this is a reasonable compromise,” Thayer told the committee.
Jason Rector, an Adair County constable and president of the Kentucky Constable Association, opposed limiting constables’ duties and instead pushed for mandatory 40-hour basic officer skills class.
“It at least gives constables an introduction to various aspects of law enforcement responsibilities and training that they would need,” Rector said of the 40-hour program that covers firearms and driving training.
Senate Bill 30 passed the committee by a 7-1 vote. It now goes to the full Senate.
What exactly do they do?
>Constables have the same law enforcement powers as sheriffs.
>They are largely fee-based officers who earn money by serving warrants, summonses and other court papers.
>Other more arcane duties include picking up a vagrant, which pays 50 cents; killing and burying “distempered” horses at $3 per head and cattle at $2 per head; and neutering horses, bulls or donkeys for a $1 fee.
>Franklin County has six constables, and most have traditionally taken other jobs to supplement their income.