Franklin County

Kentucky constable position has outlived usefulness, report says

Edward Sparks, a deputy constable in Fayette County, said he thought the position needed regulation but not abolishment.
Edward Sparks, a deputy constable in Fayette County, said he thought the position needed regulation but not abolishment. Lexington Herald-Leader

The Kentucky Law Enforcement Council released a report Thursday saying the office of constable has outlived its usefulness and is no longer considered essential to modern law-enforcement work.

The question about the relevance of constables was raised in April by Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown. Brown directed the Department of Criminal Justice Training to determine whether constables had a viable role, a news release from Brown's office said.

Brown's concern stemmed from recent high-profile criminal cases involving constables and deputy constables.

Constables in Kentucky largely perform security-guard functions, direct traffic at events or serve civil warrants, the report said.

"While constables undeniably wish to perform a public service, the fact remains that for many of them the role is a part-time position with no certified requirements, no certified standards and no training," Department of Criminal Justice Training Commissioner John Bizzack said in the news release. "What we have today is a position that has been called a hobby. And as a hobby, the office shouldn't have the same law-enforcement authority as trained, certified professional officers."

Edward Sparks, a second district deputy constable in Fayette County and vice president of the Kentucky Constable Association, said Thursday that at last count there were 490 constables in Kentucky, but that number probably increased after Tuesday's election.

The three constables and their staffs in Fayette County don't draw salaries paid by tax dollars. The constables and their staffs deliver civil court papers for a fee paid by parties in court cases. The fee is sometimes between $30 and $40. A constable has arrest powers and can carry a gun, according to Herald-Leader archives.

The report was released against a backdrop of several notable criminal cases against constables:

■ In Fayette County, Dannie Ray Pendygraft, who had been a deputy constable for about two years, was sentenced in May to a weekend in jail and three years' probation after pleading guilty to official misconduct and promoting prostitution. Pendygraft accepted sexual favors from prostitutes in exchange for rent. He was dismissed as a Fayette constable after pleading guilty.

■ In Louisville last month, Jefferson County Constable David Whitlock agreed to resign as part of a plea agreement that spared him prison time for shooting a suspected shoplifter in a Wal-Mart parking lot, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

■ In December 2011, a federal grand jury convicted Clay County constable Jackie Roberts of selling pain pills and illegally possessing a gun.

Fayette Constable Steve Hamlin said Thursday that Pendygraft's case was the first among Fayette County constables or their staffs that he was aware of in the last several years.

Hamlin, the Government Affairs Director of the Kentucky Constable Association, said he had not seen the report released Thursday but he did not think the office should be abolished.

"We have served tens of thousands of papers in the past few years without costing taxpayers a penny. We can serve very safely and productively," he said.

The report from the working group, "Constables in Kentucky: Contemporary Issues and Findings Surrounding an Outdated Office," revealed that an overwhelming majority of 1,400 county and law enforcement officials who answered a survey saw little or no practical purpose behind the constitutional office, and who said it should be abolished or its law enforcement authority eliminated or restricted.

The reports says most states have outright abolished constables, limited the office's functions or imposed restrictions. Kentucky is among 12 states that have allowed the office to exist.

Brown, who presented the report's findings during a meeting of the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council in Louisville, said in a statement that he would continue to address the issues raised in the report and will review any legislative proposals that might result.

Brown said he asked for the study "to look at all angles of the office and determine if a position that served a defined need 200 years ago was still relevant today. The answer is a resounding 'no.'"

The report said there is no required training, education or experience for constables — a standard inconsistent with other Kentucky law enforcement officers, who are certified according to the Peace Officer Professional Standards.

"Certified peace officers today meet rigorous pre-employment standards and training and are regulated through multiple layers of oversight and public scrutiny," Brown said in the news release. "That standard is diluted when law enforcement powers are shared with individuals who lack the required training and accountability."

The General Assembly could remove or restrict the law enforcement authority of constables, but attempts at legislation have been unsuccessful, according to the report.

The law enforcement benefit to counties is negligible, the report said, as constables perform less than one-fourth of one percent of the law enforcement work in Kentucky.

"As none of these functions require law enforcement authority their authorized (and sometimes unauthorized) activities create liabilities and risks to counties," the news release said.

Even among constables who were surveyed, there was a dramatic disparity in the type of duties they perform, the understanding of what their role is, and the level of education and training they receive, the news release said.

Hamlin said he had asked several lawmakers to sponsor legislation that would allow training for constables. Sparks, a deputy for second-district Constable Jim McKenzie, said the duties of the office of constable might need to be revamped and he thought training was needed, but he didn't think the office should be abolished.

In many counties where law enforcement resources are low, Sparks said, "We help to provide a lot of gaps that are missing."