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The constable is an official with duties similar to the sheriff but is more limited in power and jurisdiction. Transplanted from England to Delaware in the early colonial period, the constable’s main responsibilities of keeping the peace, serving the courts, and executing court orders and process have continued to the present time.
Under the Duke of York’s government the constable was elected from one of four overseers of the town or parish. He had the responsibility to pursue and apprehend offenders and bring them before the justice of the peace, whip, or punish offenders by order of the court, take bail for a person arrested, help to settle estates, and keep proper accounts of fines collected. The constables and eight overseers made the tax assessments, and the constable also collected taxes. If taxes were not paid, the constable was to value the delinquent’s property and seize it until taxes were paid or the property sold. In addition, the constable and two overseers held the town courts. In addition, the constable and two overseers held the town courts. As the badge of his office, a constable was required to have a staff six feet long with the King’s coat of arms on it. The laws of William Penn provide little information on the duties of the constables except that they served warrants, attended courts, and furnished lists of taxables in their hundreds for the tax assessors.1
Legislation relating to constables does not appear in the Delaware Laws until 1770. This act required constables at the end of their terms to return the names of three freeholders to the Court of General Sessions, who then appointed one to serve the next year. The Clerk of the Peace certified the appointment and delivered it to the sheriff who then notified the person of his appointment.2 At least one constable was appointed for each hundred, and appointees had to be residents of the hundred in which they served.3 After 1832 the Levy Court of each county appointed the constables, although the Governor could also fill appointments if Levy Court was in recess.4 Later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, special constables were appointed for specific institutions or companies. In 1885 the New Castle County Levy Court was permitted to appoint a special constable for Ferris Industrial School, and the Governor was later given power to appoint special constables for the Delaware State Hospital, St. Joseph’s Industrial School, railroad companies, and other concerns.5
The constable had a number of duties, many of which continue today. He executed all orders, warrants, and other process directed by any court, judge, or justice of the peace; ensured that the peace of the State be kept; arrested all persons committing riot, murder, theft, or breach of the peace, and carried them before a justice of the peace; attended elections to ensure that the peace be kept; and enforced the laws of the State.6
Executions issued by a justice of the peace for recovery of debt or payment of fines and court costs were directed to a constable or the sheriff. The constable inventoried and appraised the goods and chattels of the defendant, and if property was sold, listed the goods and chattels sold and the sale price of each item. The constable submitted a report to the justice of these proceedings and a statement of his fees.7 Whenever the sheriff received an advertisement of an impending sale from any of the constables of the county, he was required to keep a record of the time and place of the sale as well as the name of the defendant and constable.8
Constables also served, executed, and returned processes issued by the trustees of the poor, registrar of voters, and coroner.9 On the order of Levy Court, constables delivered the insane to the almshouse.10 Constables served as court criers, bailiffs for Levy Court, and were ex-officio deputy game wardens.11
The constable was required to keep a fee book, and render statements of fees, costs, or other monies received by him.12 He was required to settle his accounts with the Auditor of Accounts annually, and whenever any sums were paid to the State Treasurer, he had to make duplicate receipts and send one to the Auditor.13
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The position of constables changed little until 1965. Since 1965 the Justice of the Peace Court system has been serviced by its own constables. The chief magistrate appoints the necessary number of constables to handle all processes of the Justices of the Peace Courts. Currently (1989) there are at least sixteen constables for New Castle County, five for Kent, and seven for Sussex. Constables are required to reside in the county for which they were appointed but have jurisdiction throughout the State. Justices receive annual firearms training and training in the use of deadly force.14
After receiving direction from a justice of the peace, the duties of the justice of the peace constables include executing all lawful orders, writs, warrants, and other processes; executing all civil judgments; serving all civil summonses and subpoenas; executing commitment orders by transporting all detentioners or convicted offenders to Department of Correction facilities; collecting court costs and fines and conducting court ordered sales; maintaining order and security and arresting offenders in Justice of the Peace Court; and performing any other law enforcement duty required by the Justice of the Peace Court system.15
In 1986 many changes were made in the selection and duties of those constables not in the Justice of the Peace Court system. A Board of Examiners consisting of the Superintendent of the Delaware State Police, the Director of Public Safety of the New Castle County Police, the Attorney General, a representative from the Chiefs of Police Council, and a representative from the American Society of Industrial Security is responsible for reviewing applications for constables and delivering a list of approved applicants to the Governor. The Governor was given sole responsibility for appointing constables. Constables are appointed for one year terms but may make formal request to the Board of Examiners that their commission as a constable be renewed.16
To meet the qualifications of a constable, an applicant is required to be at least twenty-one years of age, meet minimum standards established by the Council on Police Training for part-time police officers, and may be required to receive additional training, such as firearms training, as directed by the Board.17 Constables exercise the same powers as law enforcement officers in order to protect life and property and preserve peace and goods in order to protect life and property and preserve peace and good order. Constables continue to execute all lawful orders, warrants, and other processes directed to them by any court or judge in the State. Constables may be employed by governmental entities, individuals, firms, corporations, or civil association.18
Another type of constable, the code enforcement constable, was created in 1986 also. These officers can be appointed by any county or municipal chief executive officer to enforce all ordinances pertaining to building, housing, sanitation, or public health codes.19
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1 Staughton, George; Benjamin M. Nead; and Thomas McCamant, eds., Charter to William Penn and Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania...Proceeded by Duke of York’s Law... (Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart, State Printer, 1879), pp. 5, 9, 21-22, 68, 70, 149, 222.
2 1 DL, ch. 205.
3 2 DL, ch. 190.
4 8 DL, ch. 139.
5 17 DL, ch. 495. 19 DL, ch. 583. 22 DL, ch. 79. 22 DL, ch. 296.
6 1 DL, ch. 205.
7 Ibid. 2 DL, ch. 205.
8 14 DL, ch. 379.
9 7 DL, ch. 195. 21 DL, ch. 36. 7 DL, ch. 149.
10 5 DL, ch. 36.
11 1 DL, ch. 205. 6 DL, ch. 278. 26 DL, ch. 162.
12 27 DL, ch. 275.
13 7 DL, ch. 187.
14 55 DL, ch. 21. 65 DL, ch. 411.
15 65 DL, ch. 411.
16 65 DL, ch. 433.
19 65 DL, ch. 364.
rlg/April 19, 1989; May 8, 1989