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AP report - Pa. constable system plagued by abuses

August 03, 2008|By MARK SCOLFORO

HARRISBURG, PA. - Valerie Hubbard was half asleep in her 11-year-old son's bedroom just before midnight - they had been watching "Ratatouille" on DVD - when three constables crashed through the locked first-floor door of her apartment house.

She did not know they were there to arrest her for unpaid parking tickets.

"I was scared to death," she said. "They made me feel like I was a real criminal, like I had done this terrible thing."

In 1998, state prosecutors asked the Pennsylvania Legislature to regulate and rein in constables, citing complaints around the state of constables being too heavy-handed or in many cases acting criminally. But lawmakers balked; constables are independent contractors who are elected locally and carry out work for local judges, and they did not want to interfere with local control.

Ten years later, despite some local tightening of regulations, the system remains plagued by problems that continue to demonstrate a need for reform, The Associated Press found.

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In a review of court records, government files and news accounts, the AP was able to identify dozens of cases of serious misconduct by constables over the past decade.

And in interviews with judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and county government officials, the AP found widespread belief the system remains wide open to abuse by armed constables who operate with minimal training and little oversight.

There are virtually no qualifications to hold the office, a vital cog in Pennsylvania's justice system. Constable duties include making arrests for warrants, serving civil papers and transporting prisoners for the low-level district courts.

Training and equipment are often far below police standards. The constables' unusual legal status as independent contractors means they exercise considerable legal authority with virtually no supervision or accountability.

Many judges, prosecutors and police officers believe oversight and standards are too weak - and some of the state's longest-serving and most respected constables agree.

"The good constables, which are the majority, want those bad apples out," said Chuck Benhayon, a Bucks County constable who serves on the Constables' Education and Training Board. "Any time you have people in power you're going to have problems."

Some also worry about unreported abuses.

"Their work is very hidden, and they deal with individuals within the criminal justice system who don't have much lobby power, influence or sympathy," said Blair County President Judge Jolene Kopriva, interviewed during a canvass of county judges. "So they are individuals who can be taken advantage of easily. Not many people would care."

Litany of abuses

The AP found cases over the past decade in which constables have been caught molesting children, having sex with prisoners and stealing court funds. One was apprehended by the attorney general's child predator unit seeking a sexual liaison with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl.

Constables have been convicted of federal weapons and tax evasion charges. A Johnstown constable was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and an Erie constable was barred from performing court work after being accused of discriminating against blacks.

A constable in Altoona accidentally discharged his gun inside a courtroom, several have been accused of threatening people with weapons, a veteran Butler County constable died of a heroin overdose and several constables have been accused of illegally impersonating police, even pulling over motorists.

The 1966 shooting of a fellow Marine during the Vietnam War by the president of Chester County's constable association surfaced in 2000 when authorities realized that the man - who also was mayor of tiny Modena borough - should not be carrying a gun.

Ron Meyers Jr. shot a friend in the shoulder and then killed himself in 2006, two-and-a-half years after he had been elected Northampton borough constable on the strength of 16 votes. The local district justice, who remembered Meyers' criminal record for passing bad checks, refused to swear him in or give him any court work, but that did not prevent him from taking office.

Five years ago in Ford City, about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, 21-year-old Constable James W. Schaffhauser murdered his girlfriend - shooting her five times in the head and chest - and then killed himself over the breakup of their two-month relationship. Schaffhauser, a mall security guard, was described by the coroner as a "cop wannabe" who adorned his ammunition-stocked home with police memorabilia.

In a highly publicized 2003 incident, constables serving a warrant for a couple dozen unpaid parking tickets killed three dogs in an 11-bullet fusillade unleashed inside an Allentown home. The house was occupied at the time by several adults and three children, none of them injured. The subsequent federal civil-rights lawsuit was settled for $320,000.

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