Bill nixes office

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 13, 2002

Staff Writer

A bill that would abolish the office of constable in Pike County has been filed for the current session of the Alabama Legislature.

More than a year ago, Pike County Commissioners asked State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, and State Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, to introduce local legislation that would eliminate constables.

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In January 2001, commissioners voted 3-1-1 to do away with the office of constable in Pike County.

Discussion of the issue began last year when Commissioner Willie Thomas brought up the subject of a petition signed by individuals of the Needmore Community who want to keep the constables.

As of this week, House Bill 235, which would eliminate the positions for those seven men, has been filed, Boothe said.

The bill, if passed, would put the issue on the ballot for a referendum of Pike County voters. It would be added on the ballot at the discretion of the commission and probate judge, Boothe said.

Although discussed before the 2001 Legislative Session, the bill was not put on the calendar because of the time required to advertise.

"We had to advertise the bill before I could introduce it and we didn’t have the time in previous sessions," Boothe said of why the local legislation was not introduced until now.

Pike County Sheriff Russell Thomas refused to comment on the issue at this time.

However, a year ago, Thomas said, "the liability is tremendous" if the county is forced to become involved. He also said he has received several complaints from individuals, one of whom was stopped ­ for a traffic violation ­ by a constable.

Commissioner Larry Meeks said he has been approached by two individuals who ran for the office of constable in the last election and they want the office abolished.

"I think a majority wants us to do away with them," Meeks said.

"They’re just vigilantes is what they are," he said, referring to the fact constables are not required by law to be certified by Peace Officer Standards and Training.

When the issue of constables was discussed last year, Commissioner Charlie Harris said, "My pleasure is to get rid of them."

Meeks, Harris and Commissioner Ray Goodson, voted in favor of passing the resolution. Willie Thomas voted against it and Karen Berry abstained from the vote. Commissioner Larry Penn was absent from that meeting.

Berry, who is the current chairwoman of the commission, said she abstained from the vote a year ago because she did not know the issue was coming up for a vote.

"I had not heard from any of my constituents, so I abstained," Berry said.

Since that time, she has had individuals she represents offer input.

"Since then, I’ve had several constituents say we need to abolish constables," Berry said.

The Handbook for Alabama County Commissioners states "general law provides for the election of one constable for each election precinct in each county to hold office for a term of four years. Constables are conservators of the peace within their respective counties and they perform executive duties in connection with the local courts. Constables receive compensation in the form of fees for the performance of their various duties and services."

Legislation passed in 1984 allows counties to abolish the office by local legislation.

Many of Alabama’s 67 counties have abolished the office of constable over the years.

According to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, there are 37 counties which still have constables, meaning 30 have taken action to abolish the office.

Pike County neighbors Dale and Crenshaw Counties do not have constables, but Coffee County does have them.

According to an Attorney General opinion constables "have arrest powers and the authority to write traffic tickets," however, the Criminal Justice Information Center Commission does not allow constables access to the state computer system "on the basis that constables are not charged with enforcing criminal laws."

Constables are also not authorized to have blue lights and sirens. They must also have permission from the police chief or sheriff in their jurisdiction or the Department of Public Safety to operate blue lights.

Although not required to have any formal training, some constables have gone through training and some are former law enforcement officers.

Constable Stephen Green said the Alabama Constables Association has tried to introduce legislation that would require minimum standards for constables ­ the same that are required of deputies and police officers.

"In each and every case it has been fought and voted against by the legislature with the support and lobbying of the Alabama Sheriff’s, Peace Officer’s and State Trooper’s Associations," Green said. "Constables have even offered to pay for this training out of their pockets, even though that is not required for any other peace officer in this state, their training is paid by their sponsoring agency."

He said, although constables are not required to have training, they do undergo training sponsored by the constable’s association, at locations throughout the state several times a year.

Green also pointed out the sheriff, like constables, is elected and is not required to have any specific training.

"I would be happy to see the Sheriff’s Department utilize the services of Pike County’s new constables, it only stands that extra personnel to assist the civil division of the SO would free up deputies to do more in the criminal division, as well as I feel be more cost effective to the citizens of the county," Green said.