You’ve probably noticed more Dallas County constables on the roads these days—especially if you’ve been on the business end of a speeding ticket recently. If so, you can be forgiven for thinking, “Since when do NorthPark security guards run speed traps?”

But rest assured, constables are very much part of the professional Texas law enforcement community. In fact, they’re an important cog in the criminal justice machine, charged (primarily) with serving tens of thousands of legal papers every month to people who don’t usually want them—subpoenas, warrants, writs, and everything else that keeps the courts running.

The problem is this: they’ve got guns and badges, but everyone else on the law enforcement team looks at them like they’re the water boys.
Maybe that’s why they seem to act up so often. This past summer, Dallas constables were led on that nationally covered, two-hour, high-speed car chase through Dallas that ended with a truck t-boning the suspect in Garland and, miraculously, no deaths. (Dallas constables have no restrictions on high-speed pursuits like the Dallas Sheriff’s Office and the Dallas Police Department do.) The crime that kicked it off? Forgery.
 
Or perhaps you recall Precinct 5 Constable Mike Dupree’s row with the Dallas County Commissioners Court. After he had his former boyfriend, a 20-year-old Honduran illegal immigrant, arrested and deported, the incident led to back-and-forth charges of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. (Precinct 5 has a history: in 2001, it had its own eight-man, storm trooper-uniformed SWAT team with sniper rifles, ninja masks, and military carbines.)

As this is being written, Precinct 1 and Precinct 5 constables Derick Evans and Jaime Cortes are under investigation for using an unlicensed towing service to haul off some 10,000 cars since 2007. Evans and Cortes used Dowdy Ferry Auto Services even though it wasn’t licensed, was under investigation by the state, and, oh, one of the Dowdy Ferry employees was on Constable Evans’ payroll as a clerk since 2007. Also, deputy constables in the two precincts seem to be renewing temporary tags for personal cars they’re driving every month, which some questioned, given the office’s relationship with a towing company that kept poor inventory records.

Given this sort of publicity, it’s understandable that one would ask, “Just who are these guys?”

Constables in Texas actually predate Texas as a republic or state, and their office is enshrined in the Texas Constitution. Early on, constables were among the most active lawmen in the state, at least until the rise of professional municipal police departments.

Still, constables are ubiquitous in Texas. Every county has to have one, and Dallas has five in as many precincts. He or she can hire as many deputies as the budget allows. In Dallas County, that’s determined by how many papers are served: one deputy per 200 papers served a year is the rule of thumb. Precinct 3 in the heart of the city, for example, has 43 deputies and 12 traffic enforcement units.

Current state code says that though constables have all the powers of a peace officer, each constable is directly elected, and only the county district attorney can call for an investigation of a constable. But their real duty, the code states, is issuing warrants and legal papers. Still, county commissioners courts, especially Dallas’, have long pushed to use constables to help fill in other law-enforcement gaps.

For example, note that any revenues constables generate from ticket-writing go to the county coffers, with a small cut to the state. That’s why constable cars are the ones you see out enforcing traffic laws so often. The county needs the money, and there’s hardly anyone else out there generating revenue as well as the constables are doing it.

In fact, constables are very good at this, from the county’s perspective. More than $50 million a year in tickets goes to the county’s chest, all raised from constable-written traffic tickets.

Give the constables credit. In both the revenue and traffic patrol shortfalls, constables have stepped into the breach. Most patrols come at the request of the city of Dallas, the county, schools when they are in session, and ordinary citizens in their districts. If there’s direct pressure from the county to run speed traps, no one is saying it openly. But just try to zip through a school zone at two minutes until 9 a.m., and see what happens. (Trust us. We know.)

Of course, issuing speeding citations has interfered with the whole “serving warrants” thing. A check in 2007 found that, combined, all the Dallas constable offices had issued some $49 million worth of citations even though they had 92,000 arrest warrants that hadn’t been served. County Commissioner John Wiley Price told Channel 11 at the time that he didn’t mind that, since the county needed the revenue, and the jail didn’t have space for all the people with warrants anyway.

Not serving warrants and papers—that is, the very raison d’être for constables—does present its own problems for constables. Remember how Dallas County funds deputy constable positions based on how many civil papers are served? Two hundred papers per deputy, and the papers can be anything from subpoenas and writs to eviction notices and lawsuits. Constables don’t want their budgets cut, but if they’re being pressured to focus on traffic, this can reduce the number of papers their offices serve.

Lately, some constables have come up with creative solutions to this challenge: counting a single service to a registered agent for multiple companies in a lawsuit as multiple deliveries. It’s like delivering 20 pizzas to one house (one delivery in 30 minutes) and counting it as 20 deliveries to 20 houses (a whole night’s work). Constables are also letting deputies get credit for serving a traffic court summons to another deputy constable in their own office.

With the expected county budget shortfalls for 2010, the additional warrants for all those unpaid tickets that constables are writing now, and another election cycle on the horizon, constables won’t find themselves out of the news anytime soon.

But maybe they can capitalize on the attention. If they’re looked at as revenue generators, maybe constables could be a true cash cow for the county. They could angle for their own reality show. Anyone could star. To run for constable (terms are four years), you don’t even have to have a peace officer’s license. You just have to get one within 270 days of taking office. Couple that with the alpha personality it takes to be a cop (or cop wannabe), and add a dash of public relations inexperience, and you have reality show gold.

With Reno 911 just canceled, it’s a natural.

Write to trey@treygarrison.com.

CONSTABLES BY THE NUMBERS

5
Number of constables in Dallas County

43 & 12
Number of deputy constables and traffic enforcement units in Precinct 3

1 per 200
Number of deputies allowed per number of papers served a year by constable’s office