Pa. Commonwealth Court panel rules state constables not entitled to municipal license plates

By Jon Campisi | Apr 24, 2013

A state appellate court panel has ruled that Pennsylvania constables are not entitled to

municipal government license plates for their vehicles nor an annual vehicle registration waiver.

In a decision penned by Commonwealth Court Senior Judge James Gardner Colins, the three-judge panel ruled against J. Michael Ward, the elected constable of Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, who had contended that his position entitled him to municipal tags for his personal vehicle because he used the motor vehicle exclusively for work.

Ward had also sought a waiver that would have saved him $36 per year on vehicle registration, something afforded to state troopers, municipal police officers, and state and local governmental officials.

In their ruling, the three Commonwealth Court judges decided that state constables aren’t entitled to the blue municipal license plates and registration waiver because they are not employees of the state, but rather are independent contractors.

“Not only is a constable not authorized by statute to purchase a vehicle on behalf of a political subdivision, our courts have recognized significant public safety issues where a constable has attempted to overreach his statutorily granted authority and take actions akin to those reserved for ‘highly trained’ police officers,” the ruling states.

In late November 2011, the Pennsylvania Record reported on Ward’s court battle, which was initiated by the constable in response to the denial by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to issue him the municipal plate and registration waiver.

Background information on the case shows that PennDOT actually did issue Ward a municipal government plate for his vehicle, but later sent Ward correspondence saying the tag was issued in error.

The recent Commonwealth Court ruling, which was filed on April 18, came after Ward appealed a Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas decision that affirmed PennDOT’s subsequent denial of Ward’s automobile registration.

The appellate panel ended up agreeing with the trial court that state constables, who are elected, and essentially serve as sheriff’s deputies for magisterial district courts, are not exempt from vehicle registration under the state’s Motor Vehicle Code.

The Commonwealth Court case was an issue of first impression.

“There is no question that Silver Spring Township, if it were to purchase and register vehicles for official use, would qualify for the fee exemption and municipal license plates,” the ruling states. “However, a constable, created by statute, has no authority whatsoever under that statute to act on behalf of the government unit in which he works.

“The facts here show that Constable Ward purchased his Chevrolet Tahoe, the vehicle he uses to discharge his duties as constable, on his own, that the vehicle was necessary for his job, and he determined, on his own, that he would maintain the vehicle solely for work and would not drive it for family or personal use,” the ruling continues.

“In short, he had no authority to register a vehicle on behalf of the political subdivision in which he works and, as a result, he is not eligible for a registration fee exemption for governmental and quasi-governmental entities.”

There are more than 1,000 constables statewide today, with the elected officials primarily handling the serving of civil process.

Constables handle tasks such as serving warrants for summary offenses, handling landlord-tenant disputes, and engaging in other district court-related business.

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