They look official. They sound official—plus you vote them into office.
But what powers do constables have and are they really necessary?
While TV shows like, “Justified ” portray Constable Bob Sweeney, played by Patton Oswalt, as the butt of jokes in the rural Kentucky setting of Harlan, Ky., the position began with purpose, with constables serving an integral part of county law enforcement teams.
But in modern day governmental tiers, the old tradition is lacking its once prestigious stature, Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger) said. And lawmakers in Frankfort are now taking a hard look at this elected position.
Koenig filed House Bill 158 to amend the Kentucky Constitution, giving each county the choice to keep constables as an elected official or eliminate the role.
“We have plenty of certified, trained, capable police officers in Kenton County and constables are no longer needed in our county,” said Koenig, a former Kenton County commissioner.
“They are untrained, unqualified to enforce the laws,” Koenig continued. “The position of constable is an outdated office that is not necessary in a lot of urban areas, especially Northern Kentucky.”
As that bill moves through the capital, there are nine constable seats up for grabs in Northern Kentucky on the upcoming ballot.
Earlier this week in Boone County, one of those -- Constable Joe Kalil -- presented a program aimed at arming teachers in schools as a way to combat school violence. Kalil, who owns the company Defensive Handgun Training, in Boone County, maintains that arming faculty members will save lives.
Job Dates Back To Medieval England
Like sheriffs, constables are elected officials with full policing powers, answering to citizens and not governmental a hierarchy, like hired police officers and police chiefs do.
While only one sheriff is elected per county, one constable is elected per district within each county to a four-year term. In Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, that is three districts, totaling nine elected constables. The sheriff and constables’ jurisdictions both span countywide.
According to the Kentucky Constitution: “Constables shall possess the same qualifications as sheriffs and their jurisdiction shall be co-extensive with the counties in which they reside.”
To be elected, a candidate must be 24 years old, a citizen of the state for two years and a resident of the county and the district one year prior to election.
The peace officer's position dates back to Medieval England and was established in the Kentucky Constitution in 1850, according to the Kentucky Constable Association.
Constables once acted as bailiffs for the court, assisting the Justice of the Peace, in charge of enforcing court orders and imposing the law, Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn said.
Over time, a constable’s duties have waned.
While duties vary from county to county, most constables now serve court papers like warrants, summons and subpoenas. Some constables, in smaller counties, also direct traffic, enforce traffic codes and make arrests. They may also carry a gun -- as long as they are not convicted felon. They don't need gun training to legally carry a weapon, nor law enforcement training to be elected, Koenig said.
Unlike a sheriff, however, most constables are unpaid.
In Campbell County, Constable Jim Peluso said he only serves court papers -- and that is where he earns an income.
“[It’s] not very profitable at all,” Peluso said, who is the District 3 constable in Newport. “[But] we’re cheaper than the sheriff.”
Peluso said he isn’t getting rich off of fees associated with delivering court documents, but he declined to provide his income.
To Korzenborn that constable fee is infringing on his department’s revenue, since sheriff’s departments are also given the responsibility of serving court papers. Korzenborn called it a clear conflict between sheriffs and constables.
If a county has a population of 75,000 or more, as all three Northern Kentucky counties do, the sheriff’s department is responsible for sharing their fees for serving court papers with the fiscal court. They are also audited six times a year, detailing those payments, he said.
There is no financial accountability for constables, Korzenborn said. Constables do not have to share their fees and they are not audited like sheriffs. While fees vary depending on the work that is done, they are paid about $40 per document, Korzenborn said.
“They should have to obey the same rules that we do,” the sheriff said.
Rural And Urban Counties Have Different Needs
Korzenborn said that constables are not needed in Northern Kentucky, although, rural counties like Pendleton and Bracken counties, use constables more than urban counties do.
While in urban counties constables may only serve court documents, in rural counties, they often still execute arrests, help to direct traffic and are a seemingly useful extra arm of the law.
Koenig said, “We’re good. We’ve got it covered” with law enforcement in Northern Kentucky. “[They're
an] old relic of a time gone by.”
HB158 has been introduced into the House and as of Feb. 6, it has been posted in committee.
Northern Kentucky Constables:
- District 1- David Flaig, Hebron
- District 2- Ken Baumgartner
- District 3- Joe Kalil
- District 1- Jeremy Prues
- District 2- Ken Warden
- District 3- Jim Peluso
- District 1- Mark Wolnitzek
- District 2- Timothy Saylor
- District 3- Mike Moffitt
Northern Kentucky Constable Candidates:
District 1- David Flaig and James L. Nelson III
District 2- Ken Baumgartner
District 3- Joe Kalil
- District 1- Ken Warden and David Arthur
- District 2- Bill Draughn
- District 3- Jim Peluso, Jim Delaney and Roy Usleaman
- District 1- Danny Cope
- District 2- Richard Bohl and Gregory O’Gorman
- District 3- Michael Moffitt