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Officials mull tighter control of constables

| Monday, Jan. 5, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

David Mamaux of Sheraden was waiting for a bus on Chartiers Avenue in June 2006 when two men began firing at each other on a nearby street.

Constables Albert Dancisin of Cheswick and Paul Bauer of Pittsburgh were in the Sheraden office of District Judge Randy Martini when they heard the gunfire. Dancisin and Bauer ran to the street and fired at one of the assailants after he had shot at them.

One constable's shots hit Mamaux in the head, blinding him in one eye. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala ruled that the constables were justified in returning fire and did not file criminal charges.

But actions by constables across Pennsylvania have state officials urging tighter control of the state's 1,200 constables, who transport prisoners and serve warrants and court papers.

Pennsylvania Chief Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille said he wants to impose standards after a number of constables have been charged with crimes ranging from homicide to sexual assault to theft during the past decade.

Mamaux's civil suit over his shooting is pending, and several constables in the region face lawsuits or criminal charges for incidents related to their duties:

• In November, Fayette County constable Albert Troyan was arrested by state police in Uniontown after he fired five shots at an occupied car while trying to serve warrants for unpaid traffic violations. He faces trial on charges of reckless endangerment and firing a weapon into a structure.

• In June, constables Charles and Ruth Lambie of Wharton, Fayette County, were sued in U.S. District Court by Lynn Morrison, who alleges the Lambies arrested her with a bogus warrant for failing to appear at a hearing on bad-check charges. A bench warrant for Morrison's arrest had been vacated by a judge, according to the lawsuit.

• In Butler County in 2005, constable George Galovich was charged with theft for keeping $4,000 in fines he collected. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced from 45 to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay $2,700 restitution.

• In Westmoreland County, Ronald and Sherry Rager of Jeannette were placed on two years' probation last month after they were accused of 63 counts of theft in 11 cases. They were charged with shaking down people while serving court papers and keeping $600 paid to them that should have gone to the courts.

• Donald Verney of Uniontown last year filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh alleging that he was mistakenly arrested by constables and forced to stand handcuffed in "sub-freezing temperatures" for 45 minutes while waiting for a district judge to arrive for his arraignment.

State Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he will introduce legislation early this year to reform the constable system and raise training standards.

Tom Impink of Berks County, president of the Pennsylvania State Constables Association, said his association has been working with Caltagirone to improve training standards, accountability and supervision of constables.

"I would like Justice Castille to back off and let things progress," Impink said. "What Justice Castille has done has crimped what we're trying to do."

Constables are elected to six-year terms. The state requires the 1,200 constables and their appointed deputies to be certified before they can carry a gun and wear a badge. They must complete 80 hours of mandatory training, including 40 hours of firearms instruction, and 40 additional hours each year. While a 1994 court decision made constables part of the executive branch of government, there is little oversight or control over them.

Impink said he wants more than 80 hours of mandatory training for constables and to return supervision to the judiciary, where it once rested.

There is no supervision by county officials, he said, so the only people constables have to answer to is "our constituents."

Robert Freeman, a Greensburg constable for 42 years and treasurer of the state association, agreed that 80 hours isn't sufficient training for a constable.

"I think constables always need more training along with law enforcement," he said.

Regulations governing constables are contained in 15 state laws and need to be codified into one, Impink said. Some regulations date to the early 1900s.

"If you ask 10 constables what their duties are, you'll get 10 different answers. The stuff is ridiculous, but it's still law and needs to be eliminated," he said.

Impink said legislation might be introduced in the General Assembly to eliminate the position of constable.

"Before Easter, you might see legislation introduced to do that," he said.

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