House panel approves plan to let counties eliminate constables

lblackford@herald-leader.comFebruary 26, 2013 

FRANKFORT — A first step toward allowing counties to eliminate the elected office of constable was passed by a House committee Tuesday.

House Bill 147 would amend the Kentucky Constitution to give counties the choice of eliminating constables, who mainly serve civil court papers or perform security-guard functions, according to a 2012 study.

That report, performed by the Department of Criminal Justice Training, found that constables were largely superfluous and get no training in modern law enforcement.

In addition, there have been several high-profile criminal cases involving constables, said Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, who is sponsoring the bill.

"We know there's been some issues and discussions about the constables," said Koenig, who testified before the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs. "This is a good middle-ground bill ... I'm trying to come up with something that works with different parts of our state."

Koenig sponsored a similar bill last year.

John Bizzack, director of the state's department of criminal justice training in the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said "policing in Kentucky has literally transformed itself," but constables have not been part of those training upgrades.

Several well-publicized events have hurt constables' reputations, including a Clay County constable convicted of selling pain pills and illegally possessing a gun, and a Jefferson County constable who resigned as part of a plea agreement after shooting a suspected shoplifter in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

In Fayette County, deputy constable Dannie Ray Pendygraft pleaded guilty to official misconduct and promoting prostitution after he accepted sexual favors from prostitutes in exchange for rent.

Officials estimate that there are about 500 constables statewide. No one from the Constable Association spoke against the bill Tuesday, but Koenig said he expects to hear from them before it gets to the full House.

In a telephone interview, Fayette Constable Steve Hamlin said he thinks the bill would be challenged if it got out of the General Assembly.

In Lexington, three constable positions are funded with the fees they charge for services, and they don't take taxpayer dollars.

"We are some of the most active constables in the state," he said, adding that with police budget cuts, constables perform many necessary services, such as evictions. "We don't try to do what the police department does, but if we weren't here, they would have to pick up the slack."

Hamlin said the bill was being pushed by some sheriffs who want to perform the same duties as constables.

Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, called the bill a "great recipe."

In Louisville, "we have 1,200 or 1,400 metro cops. We don't need someone out there that's not communicating or is not trained," he said. "Then again, in some counties, you may need a constable, and this legislation is perfect for those counties."

The bill now moves to the full House for consideration. If approved by the General Assembly, voters would consider the constitutional amendment in the 2014 general election.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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