The Office of Constable was introduced into British common law following the Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1088 A.D. The Constable was one of many political institutions introduced into English Law by the Norman conquerors whose “Conestabulus” or “Count of the Stable” eventually evolved into the institution we know today.
Originally, the Constable was responsible for keeping the militia and armaments of the king, and those of the individual villages, in a state of preparedness for the protection of the village communities throughout England. The office eventually became an integral arm of the military throughout Britain. During the reign of King Stephen, the office of Lord High Constable was established, and those who filled this position became the King’s representative in all matters dealing with the military affairs of the realm and the overseeing of the King’s castle.
In 1285, the first written records establishing the position of Constable appeared in the Statutes of Winchester under the rule of Edward I. According to the Statutes “in every hundred and franchise two Constables shall be chosen to make view of the armour”. But even earlier records exist which give evidence of the Constable’s internal peace keeping responsibility and his closeness to the king himself:
Henry King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou son of King Henry to William Velud greeting. I forbid you to unjustly molest or to have molested the monks of Horton concerning the land of Huntbourne. . . And unless you do it the keeper of the Constablewick of Saltwood shall have it done. . .
This reference to a “Constablewick” or “custos constablilie” indicates that the king had direct contact through his writs to the Constables then operating in Britain.
The Constable, then, seems to have been cloaked in a number of roles under the reigns of the early Norman kings. He was in charge of military affairs for the king throughout his realm and served as an enforcing agent of the king’s writs. This combination of duties reflects the medieval character of the office when feudal government and its political institutions spread throughout Britain to assure that peace was maintained even in the remotest corners of,the country far from the King’s protection.
During the Tudor period (Henry VIII to Elizabeth I) the Constable still maintained his position as a military representative of the monarch. His duty was “to prepare the muster of his district which the Constable of the Shire would embody in the array of the county to be in turn marshalled in the army of the realm by the high Constable of England”. Local settlements in England depended on Constables to assure maintenance of the peace. Election of petty Constable as established under the reign of Edward became the basis for local control of the "kings peace".
In a manner similar to their English counterparts the new American Constable had his roots in the military aspects of the community, at least in New England. The Constable of the early New England settlements bore many of the same duties and responsibilities of his counterpart in England. He was the keeper of the peace and a marshal of the early militias, established to protect the village in which he was administrator. By common law tradition, the Constable was the primary official in the community and a community was not recognized as an established village or parish unless a Constable was present in the community.
Constables in the newly forming colonies of America brought with them some of the trappings of the English Constable. But the duties of the office were not consistent in all areas of the American colonies. In 1834, Joshua Pratt was chosen as Constable in Plymouth. Among his duties were the carrying out of any punishments meted out by local tribunals, sealer of weights and measures, surveyor of the land, responsible for announcing forthcoming marriages and delivery and execution of all warrants. While many duties were delegated to officials other than the Constable, the Constable was responsible for the “Watch and Ward”, the Ward during the day and the Watch at night to maintain peace within the community. The New England settlers even went so far as to appoint Indian Constables each holding office for one year and responsible for overseeing nine other Indians under his command, and was obligated to report any acts of misconduct.
The Constables of the New England colonies bear great resemblance to the Constables of Pennsylvania. Originally, Pennsylvania was part of the holdings of the Duke of York whose strict system of laws was administered by Constables throughout his holdings. Later, under King Charles II land was granted within the Duke’s realm to William Penn. Under Penn’s governance, he and his functionaries chose Constables during the early organization of the colony. Unlike their New England counterparts they were not appointed to oversee individual communities, but were appointed to hold governance over a particular geographic region. Later on with the incorporation of townships and boroughs provisions were made for the election or appointment of Constables within those districts.
The role of the Constable in any particular area in Pennsylvania depended largely on the form of municipal government in that particular area. In the township or ward, the Constable’s duties were established and uniform trom one township or ward to the next. Constables in townships and wards were chosen annually, and on the same day as the selection of local officers. The names of the men chosen to be Constable by the electorate were then submitted to their governing Court of Quarter Sessions. The man chosen by the local electorate was then sent to the Court of Quarter Sessions where his eligibility was determined by the Judge of that oourt.
Among other things, the candidate had to have a freehold estate of the value of at least $1000. Those candidates chosen for the office in the township or ward were required by law to make an appearance before the Court of Quarter Sessions in order to accept the office and wait for the Judge’s determination of eligibility. If the man selected did not attend the court at the prescribed time, he was fined forty dollars. If he declined to serve after election he was penalized sixteen dollars.
Constable of towns, wards and townships were cloaked with the duties of local peacekeeper. They were required to maintain the peace, execute all warrants directed to them by the local justice and to insure that no unruly crowds were allowed to gather. If while in office any Constable refused to perform his duties heavy fines were provided for by law.
While the office of Constable was fairly uniform within towns, townships and wards, the duties of the Constable were not uniformly established in the borough system in the colony of Pennsylvania. In the Borough of Bristol, established in the early eighteenth century, the Constable, aside from his peacekeeping duties was also clerk of the market, and in addition, regulated the sale of bread, wine, beer and wood. In Lancaster and Carlisle boroughs the Constable along with the burgess and their assistants were permitted to convene town meetings, to pass local ordinances and to levy fines.
By 1830,.with the establishment of police forces in many of the larger municipalities in Pennsylvania, the powers and duties of the Constables began to erode, out of disuse, in many of the larger cities.
By 1873 Constables were given uniform powers throughout the state. The newly passed revision of the Pennsylvania Constitution called for a regularjzatjon of all laws dealing with borough government. Constables of the boroughs of Pennsylvania were now given uniform authority to make arrests on view, as their counterparts in towns, townships and wards were allowed to do.
Until the early 1970’s, local government within the Commonwealth was still a loosely regulated organization of poorly trained officials attempting to maintain governmental functions. The minor judiciary, at the local level was a Justice of the Peace (JP), an untrained and usually part-time position. The JP worked out of his home and was paid a fee according to the volume and type of work he completed. Police officers were untrained, locally appointed, officers who were given a badge, gun and a red warning light for their private vehicle. The JP issued his precepts, and the Constable was the JP’8 enforcer. In 1972, the JP system was abolished and the district court system created by virtue of the Unified Judicial System. District justices were now to be paid a salary, required to attend continuing education courses and provided with accoutrements that elevated them to a professional position.
Likewise, Act 120-74 became law and required that all municipal police officers attend training and certification courses so that they would become professional police officers who could function with afl understanding of what the laws required of them.
Act 2-84 required that Deputy Sheriffs become trained professionals, thus elevating their status as peace officers. The Constable became the last unprofessional associate” member of the minor judiciary. By the late 1980’s, the fee structure of 1972 proved to be ‘inadequate and, if the Constable system was to remain a viable force, training and certification were necessary.
In 1990, Act 147 became law. Finally there was an updated fee structure and a requirement for training and certification. Act 147 also required president judges to exert direct control of the Constable and his actions. The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth was asked to rule on the validity of Act 147. In 1991, Act 147 was ruled unconstitutional. It was determined that the Constable was a law enforàement officer and as such he belonged under the Executive branch of state government, rather than the Judicial. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) moved to sever all ties with the Constables, ordering president judges to suspend any and all local rules that conflicted with the Act of 1972.
The Pennsylvania State Constable’s Association, working closely with various legislators, was able to have new legislation introduced and Act 102 became law in 1992. In the short term, the issue of training and certification was partly resolved, and new fees were established. Act 102 however, still fell short of the requirements to insure that the issues of oversight were adequately covered. Again, legislation was introduced to tie up the loose ends and Act 44 of 1994 was passed, becoming effective June 15 of 1994. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency agreed to act as an overseerer for Constable training.
It is important to note that these pieces of legislation will only affect those Constables working for the courts. Eventually, there will be two “classes” of Constables within the Commonwealth: certified and non—certified. Without Acts 102—92 and 44-94, the Constable would have become a locally elected official with no power and authority, having relinquished his last functions completely to police forces and Sheriffs.
In 2006 the legislature of PA passed Act 59 that provided Constables an updated fee structure. Prior to that update, Constables had been operating on fee rates set 12 years earlier. The pay scale increase was welcome relief for all certified Constables in PA.
Constables in Pennsylvania are elected and serve a six-year term, they are Peace Officers by virtue of the office they hold, upon completing state certification and training, they may also serve as the Law Enforcement Arm of the Court. Constables primarily serve the District Courts but may also assist in serving the Common Pleas Court, when requested by the Sheriff.
As Public Officials Constables are required to file an annual Statement of Financial Interests with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission .Each Constable may with approval of the President Judge, appoint Deputies to work under his authority. Each Deputy is given the same authority as the Constable himself, but serves at the pleasure of the elected Constable.
Constable’s are considered to be the "Peoples Peace Officer" because of their Constitutional origin, and as elected officials they are independent of other governing bodies, this gives the Constable the freedom and authority to perform his duties according to statute, in the interest of justice.The duty of the Constable is to uphold the law fairly and firmly: to pursue and bring to justice those who break the law; to keep the peace; to protect, help and reassure the community: and to be seen to do all this with integrity, common sense and sound judgement.
Constables must be compassionate, courteous and patient, acting without fear or favor or prejudice to the rights of others. The position requires the need to be professional, calm and restrained in the face of violence and apply only that force which is necessary to accomplish our lawful duty. We must strive to reduce the fears of the public and, so far as we can, to reflect their priorities in the action we take.