Pa. constables appeal PennDOT ruling revoking municipal license plates

Jon Campisi Nov. 25, 2011, 8:32am

A court battle is waging between two capitol-area Pennsylvania state constables and the commonwealth’s transportation department.

But there seems to be more at stake than simply deciding whether or not the unique law enforcement officers are entitled to government vehicle tags.

The very nature of the job seems to be called into question.

The fight against PennDOT and the two constables began after the transportation agency informed the men they would no longer be eligible to display blue municipal government license plates on their vehicles.

The constables appealed the ruling by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, saying the alternative – that they display personal license plates on their vehicles – could put them in danger, say, from arrestees who may feel the desire to look up the constables’ home addresses and other personal information in attempts at retribution.

The PennDOT decision, which was first reported by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., means the two constables would no longer be able to have government plates on the vehicles they use for work.

“They’re basically not recognizing the office of constable,” constable J. Michael Ward, of Silver Spring Township, Pa., told the Patriot-News Nov. 20.

The Harrisburg newspaper reported that PennDOT sent out letters to Ward, and fellow constable, Kevin Kelley, of Middletown Borough, in mid-September informing them that their municipal licenses plates were being suspended because they were “issued in error.”

“More specifically, the … registration was issued to your vehicle without payment of the required fees,” the letter from Bureau of Motor Vehicles Director Anita M. Wasko stated, according to the newspaper’s account.

The constables told the paper they had initially intended to pay the mere $36 state-required vehicle registration fee back in 2007 and 2009, respectively, when each became constables, but they were told by none other than PennDOT that the plates would be free as an “intergovernmental courtesy.”

In general, no registration fee is required for municipal government vehicles.

“These constables did everything according to PennDOT’s rules, and now those rules have changed,” William G. Stoeffler, a Jackson Township constable and spokesman for the Capitol Area Constable Association, told the Patriot-News.

The license plate revocation threat has raised some questions about what some may view as an antiquated law enforcement agency harking back to colonial times, but what others consider the policing agency with the most bang for the taxpayers’ buck.

Constables, it’s a Pa. thing

The argument over whether or not constables should be issued free municipal license plates needs to be looked at within the context of the job itself.

Constables date back to colonial times. Like sheriffs, constables were used in Great Britain as policing agents. Under common law tradition, they were transferred to colonies like Pennsylvania, where they have remained ever since.

Constables have always been elected in Pennsylvania. They previously served as law enforcement representatives, tax collectors and even looked after the moral behavior of citizens.

Today, constables – there are about 1,100 statewide – primarily handle the serving of civil process. Think of them as police for magisterial district courts, where they serve warrants for summary offenses, (such as outstanding traffic tickets), handle landlord-tenant disputes and engage in other district court-related business.

They can also handle security for district courts as well as for election polling places.

Constables have nearly full police powers, and they undergo training similar to municipal police officers’ training, which allows them to carry a badge and a firearm. It also enables them to make arrests, including felony arrests committed in view of the constables. The only thing they have no power over is the enforcement of the state’s motor vehicle code, meaning no lights and sirens on their vehicles, and no pulling over motorists for traffic infractions.

Constables are more like sheriffs in that they are elected, unlike municipal police officers. But this, in itself, should have no bearing over the issuance of municipal government license plates, said Philip M. Intrieri, a Harrisburg-area lawyer handling the appeals for Ward and Kelley, the two mid-state constables fighting PennDOT over the license plate revocation.

After all, district attorneys and sheriffs are elected in Pennsylvania, and their vehicle fleets are equipped with municipal plates.

Intrieri doesn’t know exactly why PennDOT is moving to take the constables’ plates. But he can venture a guess.

“I don’t think anyone believes this is a case about a thirty-six dollar registration fee,” Intrieri said in a lengthy phone interview with the Pennsylvania Record Tuesday. “I think this is PennDOT attempting to make policy for the constables of the commonwealth.”

Asked why he thinks PennDOT may be doing, Intrieri simply said: “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Bad apples shouldn’t spoil the bunch

Constables have gotten somewhat of a bad rap at times. News accounts have told of constables getting themselves into trouble for various reasons. Take, for example, the case of Steven Sokoloff, a former constable from Lower Merion, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia, who handcuffed the wrong man at a Montgomery County car dealership and then refused to release him. Sokoloff was subsequently stripped of his constable status by a county judge, which is allowed under state law.

In 2009, Sokoloff attempted to run for constable again, but the district attorney opposed the move, filing a petition for contempt of court, since Sokoloff had agreed to never again run for the office.

Then there’s the case of Michael Solow, a West Conshohocken constable who landed himself in trouble after abusing his powers in other ways, such as continuing a police pursuit after other authorities called it off for safety reasons, and searching someone’s home without a warrant. He, too, was removed from office by a Montgomery County judge, according to news reports.

But the vast majority of constables, including Ward and Kelley, the appellants in the license plate case, are decent, hardworking, upstanding members of society who deserve a fair shake, attorney Intrieri said.

There are bad apples in all professions, including law enforcement, and this shouldn’t taint the office for everyone, he said.

And as far as the municipal tags go, when some police officers do bad, not all government license plates are rescinded. Intrieri said constables should be handled the same way.

At their appeals hearings, which will be held in Cumberland County Common Pleas Court for Ward and in Dauphin County Common Pleas Court for Kelley, Intrieri said he plans to argue that the office of constable should be afforded the same license plates as municipal cops and sheriffs.

“The plate is not issued to the constable individually,” he said. “The plate is issued to the office of constable.”

In the Patriot-News story, PennDOT spokesman Dennis Buterbaugh said while he wouldn’t discuss the agency’s decision involving Ward and Kelley specifically, he was quoted as saying that, “In general, however, municipal government plates are given to vehicles registered to municipal governments. Constables are not municipal governments and are not eligible for municipal plates.”

Intrieri begs to differ.

“They continue to be an official of the municipality they serve,” he said. “The fact that they are an established municipal office, they’re entitled to the plate as well.”

Intrieri said it’s ultimately going to come down to a judge deciding whether or not constables should be afforded the municipal plates. The question may hinge over whether or not constables are viewed as political subdivisions of the commonwealth.

However, there doesn’t seem to be any question over whether constables are considered law enforcement officers. That has been answered by the state legislature, Intrieri said.

It also seems to have been answered in the affirmative by out-of-state jurisdictions.

Back in 2006, the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania state constable named Manuel Rodriguez who was arrested in New York City for criminal possession of a weapon.

Rodriguez was discovered to be in possession of a loaded, unlicensed firearm, a serious violation under New York law.

Rodriguez argued that as a Pennsylvania constable, he was certified law enforcement, and as such was entitled to possess his firearm out of jurisdiction if he was on official duty, which he claimed he was.

Rodriguez was attempting to serve a warrant on someone who had fled to New York, he had argued. He even showed the arresting NYPD officers his badge, and the court-issued warrants the proved he was on the job, but to no avail.

In the end, however, the courts agreed with Rodriguez, ruling that under New York law, officers from out-of-state who are in New York on official police business are entitled to carry their firearm, and are exempt from prosecution for the criminal possession charge.

The court also noted that Rodriguez was entitled to carry his firearm in New York under federal law passed in 2004.

The point, the court ruled, was that under Pennsylvania law, Rodriguez was a law enforcement officer, and he was legally entitled the same courtesies as other cops.

PennDOT as policymakers?

While constables do work for the courts, they technically fall under the executive branch. They also do not get a salary, but rather are paid by commonwealth, administered through the courts’ payroll, for each individual job they do. They’re akin to independent contractors.

To attorney Intrieri, constables are actually the most financially sound of all Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies.

“We’re talking a very light load on the taxpayers here, which is again why PennDOT’s entire action is a puzzlement because constables bring in millions and millions of dollars in state and local revenue,” Intrieri said. “Any taxpayer doing their math would be more than happy to give them a free [vehicle] registration. It’s actually the most cost effective level of law enforcement in the commonwealth because it is fee supported.”

But unlike most municipal police officers, constables often work alone, meaning safety is of the utmost importance.

PennDOT’s move to revoke municipal tags for constables – who are required to use their personal vehicles for the job – could spell danger for constables who could potentially come into contact with dangerous criminals, Intrieri argues.

“Every ounce of safety, and every safety feature we can give them, they should have,” he said.

Intrieri said while Ward and Kelley are fighting PennDOT’s decision, not all constables have gone this route, primarily because it’s cheaper to pay the vehicle registration than pony up lawyer’s fees.

“Constables are not rich people that have the ability to litigate,” he said.

Intrieri also would like to see the General Assembly take up the issue, since the “legislature, as our elected representatives, should be the policy makers here,” not PennDOT, he said.

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