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Court sets rules for constables

Pa. Supreme Court develops first statewide standards for the elected court workers.

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has adopted the first set of statewide policies, procedures, and standards of conduct for elected constables who serve civil papers, transport prisoners, and do other work for local courts, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said Tuesday.

The rules, the product of more than two years of work by a group that included judges, court officials, and constables, are a critical step toward reining in a system that detractors say has long lacked standards in such areas as qualifications and professionalism, the chief justice said.

A 2008 series of articles by the Associated Press cataloged dozens of examples of misconduct, including constables caught stealing court funds, having sex with prisoners, threatening people with weapons, and illegally impersonating police. It cited concern among judges, lawyers, and police about the potential for abuses by armed constables with minimal training or supervision.

Under the new rules, constables will still be elected and work as independent contractors as needed by the courts, but they will be subject to uniform standards and policies that include:

Elected or appointed constables seeking work from the courts must be certified by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, a process that requires completion of basic training and continuing education, and show proof that they have liability insurance providing coverage of at least $250,000 per incident and $500,000 per year.

Constables must comply with standards of conduct established by the state's Unified Judicial System, which require that they avoid conflicts of interest and abstain from soliciting funds for any purpose or engaging in political activity while performing judicial duties.

A constable must carry identification and wear clothing that "clearly identifies him or her as a constable while performing judicial duties."

Vehicles used for transporting defendants to and from court must be in "roadworthy condition" and equipped with a permanent "cage" behind the driver's seat that securely separates the constable from the defendants.

Constables are elected in the area where they live, but they can work anywhere in the state. They are elected to six-year terms.

About 1,000 constables are currently certified to work in the courts, said Amy Kelchner, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.