Pa. Supreme Court adopts new rules for state constables

By Jon Campisi | May 29, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced this week that it has adopted new rules for

state constables, the decision coming after two-plus years of input from various stakeholder groups.

The new rules, which for the first time require uniform policies, procedures and standards of conduct for the commonwealth’s constables, were based on recommendations  of a workgroup established by the high court that included Common Pleas Court judges, magisterial district judges, court administrators and other representatives of the judiciary, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which announced the institution of the new rules.

“There was a need for these rules, policies and procedures, and the Supreme Court has taken a critical step in establishing uniformity for constables who provide services to the judiciary,” Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said in a statement released by the AOPC. “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.”

The workgroup that came up with the recommendations was co-chaired by Dauphin County Common Pleas Court President Judge Todd A. Hoover and Washington County Common Pleas Court President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca.

Two state constables were also included in the workgroup, which utilized constable handbooks that had been developed by Berks and Chester Counties as a reference, according to the AOPC.

Constables, a uniquely Pennsylvania position harking back to colonial times, essentially serve as deputy sheriff’s for magisterial district courts.

Their duties include handling the serving of civil process, such as warrants for summary offenses and matters involving landlord-tenant disputes.

The high court’s development of the new uniform rules comes soon after a Commonwealth Court decision involving a state constable who appealed a decision by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to not issue the man municipal government plates for his personal vehicle.

J. Michael Ward, the elected constable of Silver Spring Township in Cumberland County, had argued that his position entitled him to the government tags and vehicle registration waiver because he used his vehicle exclusively for work.

(In Pennsylvania, those who display municipal government license plates are exempt from annual vehicle registration fees).

Ward eventually appealed his denial to the Commonwealth Court, which upheld PennDOT’s determination, ruling that constables are not technically law enforcement officers working for a county or municipality under state law.

The Pennsylvania Record previously reported on Ward’s initial case and subsequent appeal.

As for the rules changes, the workgroup suggested areas in which the state legislature can address additional ways to improve the constable system.

There are currently about 1,000 working constables statewide.

According to the AOPC, the Supreme Court provided information to the leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, which, the AOPC says, “has been highly supportive of the initiative undertaken by the [Supreme] court.”

The General Assembly has been asked to study areas such as definitions and clarification of terms relevant to constable remuneration, the consideration of limiting political activities on the part of elected constables, the enumeration of prior criminal convictions and other factors that might hamper a constable’s abilities to receive court assignments.

Education and training improvement, standardization in bonding requirements, and incompatible practices and standardized attire were yet additional areas the high court suggested legislators look into.

In his statement, Chief Justice Castille noted that none of the rules changes are designed to change the legal status of constables, who will continue to be elected and will remain independent contractors working for the courts who will be utilized on an “as needed basis.”

“The rules and standards pertain solely to constables engaged in service to the courts,” the AOPC’s announcement states.

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