It’s a high-risk, low-reward position without insurance, benefits, workers compensation or even a guaranteed paycheck.
This is the life of a Pennsylvania state constable, a six-year elected municipal position. As officers of the municipal courts, they are members of the executive branch of government and therefore directly answerable to the governor of Pennsylvania.
It’s not the typical government job. And according to constable Sam Allison of Johnstown, it is among the most dangerous.
“Can it turn ugly real quickly? Absolutely,” Allison said. “We’ve had people go off the deep end in the (magistrate’s) office. We’ve had people go off the deep end on the street. I’ve (known) constables who had guns pulled on them — who were shot at or stabbed.
“These are the things you don't see publicized. It's not a job for people who think it's going to be a cakewalk.”
And in some places — notably Somerset County — it isn’t much of a job at all.
According to Senior District Judge Joseph Cannoni in Windber, constables play a unique and often misunderstood role in the commonwealth. They are able to serve eviction notices and subpoenas. In many counties they transport prisoners from court to jail. They may also have deputies appointed by the magistrate to work beneath them.
Most of the time, he said, constables find work when magistrates give them warrants to serve. The constables are then able to pick up the defendants and submit a “fee bill” to the court for their services.
“They're like independent contractors,” Cannoni said. He noted that constables are paid $25 plus mileage reimbursement for picking up an individual wanted on a warrant. "There's a lot of stuff they can charge.”
Magistrates are tasked with reviewing and signing off on fee bills, which are then sent to the county. Constables are to be paid within two weeks of their services.
Cannoni said that although the defendants are supposed to pay this fee, they often do not. This means that the county has to foot the bill until — or if — it is reimbursed by the accused.
For this reason, he said, Somerset County has relied on the state and local police departments to do most of the things within the constables’ jurisdiction.
“That's just the way it was always done,” Cannoni said. “The cost to the county can be really high.”
He added he has a lot of respect for the good constables whom he’s dealt with over the years from both Somerset County and Johnstown. Constables, by law, are able to serve warrants anywhere in the state.
"There's definitely a use for them,” Cannoni said. “(And) they deserve to get paid for the work they do.
“It's not for everybody, either. You're not technically a police officer, but you do have some arrest powers. You've got to be a special person.”
District Judge Douglas McCall Bell in Meyersdale said he believes the constable is a holdover from the old English common law system, when roving police patrols weren’t yet employed by society.
“It was up to the citizenry” to file charges, he said, adding that he believes constables can still “carry on and be effective in the modern world.” He regularly employs the service of three active constables in the southern portion of the county.