Counties would be able to abolish constables under House bill

02/02/2017 05:47 PM

A northern Kentucky lawmaker is continuing his push to curtail the constitutional office of constable, saying recent efforts have bolstered support for a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to abolish the office outright or restrict its powers.

Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, has filed House Bill 160, which would give fiscal courts the authority to abolish the office and city councils the ability to significantly limit its scope if passed and ratified by voters.

HB 160, as legislation amending the Kentucky Constitution, would require three-fifths majorities in both chambers and be placed before voters statewide on the 2018 ballot for their approval.

Koenig said he became interested in the subject as a fiscal court member in Kenton County, particularly after former Kenton County Constable Ron Ferrier was charged with impersonating a police officer in 2007 and later convicted.

Constables in other locales have also fallen afoul of the law. Laurel County Constable Bobby Joe Smith faces a manslaughter charge after fatally shooting a man at a convenience store while trying to serve him a warrant in March, for instance. In another example, Jefferson County Constable David Whitlock was forced to resign and never work in law enforcement after he shot a suspected shoplifter in a Walmart parking lot in 2011.

Koenig says the legal woes triggered by some constables and the liabilities that may fall on local governments are just a couple reasons he wants to give counties the option of doing away with the office.

Another major factor in the eyes of Koenig and others: Constables, which are tied to counties’ magisterial districts, aren’t required to complete law enforcement training.

“Obviously there are places like where I am from, Jefferson County, other places that don’t need constables,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “We have plenty of police force available to us, and they’re a relic of a bygone era. I want to give any county that feels like they are not needed the opportunity to eliminate them within their county.”

Groups like the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association, Kentucky Association of Counties and Kentucky League of Cities are backing HB 160, Koenig said.

J.D. Chaney, deputy executive director of KLC, said his group is backing HB 160 out of concern for public safety due to the lack of training required of constables.

“It’s an antiquated office that was tied to a time when we didn’t have a unified court system in Kentucky and magistrates had judicial power,” Chaney said.

“There are parts of the state where it’s important that they direct traffic and maybe even serve and process (court paperwork), but to have the power of arrest, use deadly force, those core peace-officer powers without adequate training in interacting with the public really exposes” the general public and police officers who encounter constables trying to take on situations they’re not trained to handle, he added.

But Adair County Constable Jason Rector, president of the Kentucky Constable Association, says the office has become a scapegoat thanks to a few bad actors.

“That holds true to any other elected position as well,” he said.

“There’s bad mayors, there’s bad county judges, there’s bad magistrates, there’s bad sheriffs, and we actually ask for the training and have ever since 2007. We’ve not gotten that request at this point. We do kind of seem to keep getting further and further with legislators each year for that request on our behalf.”

Legislation last year that would have established a training program for constables died in committee, and Rector argues that other officers, like sheriffs and their special deputies, aren’t required to complete training either. He said constables have been denied entry in the Department of Criminal Justice Training’s program for law enforcement officers since 2008.

Koenig counters that sheriffs have functions other than law enforcement, such as collecting taxes, inspecting vehicles and protecting courthouses.

“Those are responsibilities that the state gives that office that are necessary and have to be,” he said. “There are no responsibilities that we give constables that have to be done.”

Koenig has sponsored similar bills in recent legislative sessions, but none have received floor votes in the House. He says he hopes that changes now that Republicans hold a 64-member supermajority in the lower chamber, especially with the influx of 17 freshman representatives looking at the issue with fresh perspectives.

HB 160 has attracted bipartisan support, with half of its six co-sponsors hailing from Jefferson County. Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively; Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville; and Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, make up the Louisville-area contingent while Rep. Robby Mills, R-Henderson; Rep. Brandon Reed, R-Hodgenville; and Rep. Rob Rothenburger, R-Shelbyville, are the other co-sponsors.

Koenig says support for and opposition to his bill has, in the past, divided urban and rural lawmakers. The only exceptions to that are Lexington-area legislators whose constables remain active in the Fayette County community, he said.

Koenig doesn’t want to see the debate on HB 160 devolve into an urban-rural spat but rather as a problem that needs to be addressed.

However, constables have proven effective lobbyists, especially with lawmakers whose districts encompass multiple counties.

“Constables are fellow elected officials, a lot of whom like being constables and are quite boisterous in their opposition to my bill,” Koenig said. “You think about it, in some of these rural areas you might have four counties in a House district and seven or eight in a Senate district. That’s a lot of constables with a lot of family members that folks are unwilling to take on.”

Rector says in rural parts of the state, constables play an integral role in supplementing law enforcement efforts.

In Adair County, Rector says constables are called upon when police officers “are tied up on other situations.”

“They are more widely looked upon and supported and utilized in a smaller, rural community,” he said, noting that urban cities could use constables to serve court paperwork.

Koenig isn’t sure how his bill will fare, partly because constitutional amendments can’t be ratified until 2018. Rector says HB 160, which hasn’t been assigned to a committee, may pass the House, but he doesn’t see the legislation clearing the Senate.

“It may make it to the House floor, and even if it makes it to the House floor, it may or may not be heard,” Rector said. “But I do know the Senate side is not in support of amending the Constitution or abolishing the position.”


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