Bill to restrict constable police powers looks unlikely

LRC Public Information

Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, presents a bill in the House Licensing, Occupations, & Administrative Regulations Committee earlier this session. Koenig is the sponsor of House Bill 214.

It’s a chilly January night in 2012. A Madison County constable sees several cars doing snow doughnuts. The constable drives over to investigate and claims to nearly be hit by one of the vehicles.

The constable turns his blue lights on and gets out of his vehicle. He walks up to the vehicle, which attempts to drive away. The constable then opens the car door and turns off the ignition. From there, the constable reports being punched in the face before pulling the driver out of the vehicle.

According to the incident report, the constable deployed his Taser. And he also pepper sprayed the driver.

The constable, like nearly all across Kentucky, is not certified according to Peace Officer Profession Standards (POPS).

However, a bill currently in the House could change that.

State Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, said House Bill 214 is important because there are untrained “people running around with full police officer powers in a state where we have the most thorough police officer training program in America. And it just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

Koenig’s measure would remove peace officer powers from constables who are not certified to POPS. The bill does not remove the position from the Kentucky Constitution, and those elected would still be able to perform all of their current duties, including serving summonses and directing traffic. In the event a constable is POPS-certified, the legislation provides for a county the ability to authorize those powers within their jurisdiction.

“I would get rid of constables if I could,” Koenig told The Register. “This is a compromise that enables those who still use them to use them, but to make sure that we only have qualified people who can make arrests and write tickets. I think that’s important.”

Kentucky League of Cities Director of Governmental Affairs Bryanna Carroll said the KLC supports the bill as it is a public safety issue.

“When you look at statutory obligations, it really highlights how archaic the position is,” Carroll said of the position of constable which dates back to 1850. “We have true law enforcement now. We have police departments. We have sheriff’s offices.”

Carroll points to a Clark County constable that pled guilty to drug trafficking. Another constable was charged with reckless homicide while a former Franklin County constable faced charges of kidnapping and promoting prostitution.

“Constables are a real issue right now, and they’re making headlines quite frequently with their improper use of power,” she said.

However, not all agree with House Bill 214.

Jason Rector, President of Kentucky Constable Association, said even though the bill outlines training, it's not feasible.

Rector said the majority of constables are not paid a salary, and many have an additional full-time job. Due to those circumstances, most constables would not be able to afford or withhold their jobs to successfully go to the academy for 20 weeks while not being paid. In addition, the constables would be “required to pay for the training out of their own pocket, which most wouldn't be able to afford either.”

Rector said constables in small, rural communities remain important and, at times, vital to those communities for providing additional manpower for law enforcement. He added Koenig doesn’t represent rural Kentucky and has no understanding of small counties' need of services.

“In rural Kentucky, services are limited with many law enforcement agencies cutting back on officers on the road,” Rector said. “Constables can provide a valuable service to our communities providing assistance to both city police agencies and the county sheriff’s office. In fact, many times the constable may be the only agency available to respond for a call for assistance or provide valuable back up to another agency responding alone.”

Rector said the Kentucky Constable Association is involved with legislation that it supports, including training. He added the organization’s board of directors has a scheduled meeting in May with the Tennessee Constable Association, because Tennessee does have training requirements in place.

“We will take a look at what those training requirements are along with their governing oversight for the constables reporting their training obtained and meeting those requirements,” Rector said. “Then we intend to discuss the next step to see if the same oversight and similarities would work for Kentucky. For our final step, we would be proposing that to the legislators in support of moving forward with professionalizing the position of constable in the Commonwealth that we all can agree with.”

Koenig said while HB 214 is out of committee and awaiting action on the floor, the bill has the votes to pass to the House. However, he’s unsure of its fate in the Senate.

“Time is short, and maybe something good will happen,” he said.

Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.

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