Pennsylvania Constables Have Significant Arrest Authority

By Brian K. Lutes of Uniontown, PA, December 11, 2008

This article delves into the authority of Pennsylvania Constables to affect warrantless arrests for crimes committed in their presence. In future articles we will explore the Constables activities in the areas of Process service, Court Security, Training, Vehicle Code Enforcement, and the display of emergency lighting on Constables vehicles as well as other topics.

Contrary to the beliefs of most citizens, law enforcement officers, and even many Constables themselves, Pennsylvania Constables have full authority to make warrantless arrests for crimes in the Commonwealth.

I stress “warrantless arrests” due to the common belief that the only function of Constables, due mostly to ignorance of the laws and court decisions pertaining to Constables, is serving arrest warrants and other documents issued by the courts.

Most often this belief is expressed by, how should I say, the miscreants of our society? Well, however you say it, the bad guys. Usually they express this belief when they are out & about engaging in their less than honorable pursuits and observe someone in a uniform with a badge. The miscreants will stop what they are doing and look closely at the uniform in an effort to determine if the officer may be able to arrest them. Almost without fail when they determine the officer is a Constable, they say to each other “It’s just a Constable” and they go back to their misdeeds without concern.

This perception of Constables must be corrected as sooner or later a Constable who is on his game is going come across a bad guy who honestly believes a Constable cannot arrest him without a warrant and will resist the Constable when told he is under arrest creating a very dangerous situation for the Constable & the suspect.

In addition, Constables can be a very positive factor in law enforcement’s ever increasingly difficult job of getting the bad guys off the street; if they know and understand the authority they can exercise.

The PA Supreme Court has noted in the case of In Re Act 147 of 1990, 528 PA 460,463 (1991) “Constables are Peace Officers charged with the conservation of the peace, and whose job it is to arrest those who have violated it; It is the Constables job to enforce the law and carry it out, just as the same is the job of District Attorneys, Sheriffs, and the police generally”.

The arrest authority of PA Constables is defined generally in PA law in Title 13 of  the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Annotated, commonly referred to as Purdon’s Statutes (P.S.), 45 et seq. which states: “Constables of the Commonwealth, in addition to the powers already conferred upon them, shall and may, without warrant and upon view, arrest and commit for hearing any and all persons guilty of  a breach of the peace, vagrancy, riotous and disorderly conduct or drunkenness,or who may be engaged in the commission of an unlawful act tending to imperil the personal security or endanger the property of the citizens, or violating municipal ordinances, for the violation of which a fine or penalty is imposed. Any person arrested with or without a warrant, shall be entitled to trial.”

   In The case of Commonwealth v. Frombach, 420 Pa Super. 498 (1992) the PA Superior Court determined that the PA Legislature by 13 P.S. 45 et seq. (above), “Conferred on Constables the power to without warrant and upon view, arrest and commit for hearing any and all persons guilty of a breach of the peace.

A breach of the peace has been defined generally as any of “a great variety of conduct destroying or menacing public order and tranquility. It includes not only violent acts but acts and words likely to produce violence in others” (see 310 U.S. 296, 308) In its broadest sense the term refers to any criminal offense, or at least any indictable offense (see 207 U.S. 425). Breaches of the peace have been defined by state courts as “disturbances of the public peace violative of order and decency or decorum (see 147 N.W. 2d 886,892). And as “any violation of any law enacted to preserve peace and good order” and “signifies disorderly, dangerous conduct disruptive of public peace (see 261 A. 2d 731, 739).

In the case of Commonwealth v. Taylor, 450 Pa. Super. 583, 677 A. 2d 846 (1996)the Superior Court, citing the Constables authority to affect warrantless arrests for breaches of the peace, determined that Constables have the authority make arrests for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. (see also Commonwealth v. Corley, 507 Pa. 540,491 A.2d 829 (1985)) where the court held that a private citizen can affect an arrest when a felony has been committed and the citizen reasonably believes that the person he arrests has committed the felony.

In further exploration of the authority of PA Constables it must be noted that in the case of Commonwealth v. McGavin, 305 Pa. Super. 528, 534, 451 A. 2d 773 (1982)the Superior Court held that the statute authorizing  Constables to make warrantless arrests, 13 P.S. 45 et seq. (above),requires that the offense for which the warrantless arrest is made be an offense that (1) is committed within view of the Constable, and (2) constitutes a breach of the peace (described above).

In a real world scenario this seems to indicate that should a Constable observe 2 men fighting in the street, the Constable has authority to make arrests for disorderly conduct, etc., but should a Constable observe a man sitting on a sidewalk bleeding from his nose and upon investigation learns that the man was assaulted by an identified individual, the Constable should secure the scene & protect the victim from further harm and then would need to contact the law enforcement agency for the jurisdiction so that they could make the arrest on information received from the victim since the Constable did not witness the breach of the peace.

Also, in the bloody nosed victim example above, if the victim or a witness  were to point out the person(s) with whom the victim was fighting, it seems  the Constable would be authorized to detain,  not arrest, the individual(s) for investigative purposes. If the Constable decides to detain, not arrest, the accused individual(s), he would be justified in performing a pat down frisk of the individual(s) in an effort to be certain the individual(s) does  not possess dangerous weapons and he may even place the individual(s) in handcuffs while waiting for the arrival of the jurisdictions law enforcement agency (see Commonwealth v. Leet, 537 Pa. 89, 641 A. 2d 299 (1994); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 26, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968); Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 116 S. Ct. 1657 (1996); United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 101 S. Ct. 690 (1981).

In short, based on the court’s language in the McGavin case above, it seems that a Constable has authority to make arrests for crimes in progress that he sees taking place.

However, recall that in the Corley case the court held that “even a private citizen can effect an arrest when a felony has been committed and the citizen reasonably believes that the person he arrests has committed the felony”. Note that the court did not say that the citizen must actually observe the felony being committed. Rather, the court said the citizen can affect an arrest for a felony when the citizen reasonably believes that the person he arrests has committed the felony.

 In summation, Pennsylvania Constables are authorized to affect warrantless arrests for breaches of the peace committed in their presence and may detain for investigative purposes individuals they reasonably believe to be engaged in criminal activity.

In addition, Constables, the same as private citizens, may affect an arrest for a felony if he reasonably believes that a felony has been committed and that the person he has arrested committed the felony.

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5 Responses to “Pennsylvania Constables Have Significant Arrest Authority”

  1. Brad Harris Says:

    I am an attorney who represents officers & constables, and your above article was helpful in quickly leading me to some other resources to answer a constable question I had. I tried reviewing your other resources, but the 2 links appear to be dead. You probably need to update them.

  2. Martin Smith Esq. Says:

    Many of your federal statutes have no weight upon Pennsylvania.. You also do not discuss the fact that Constables lack the authority to charge anyone with a crime.

    • ten8 Says:

      Are you speaking of federal statutes or court holdings?
      If you mean federal statutes, I do not believe the article references any federal statutes.
      If you mean holdings of federal courts such as Terry v. Ohio, are you saying that holdings of federal courts carry no weight in PA?
      With reference to the contention that Constables lack authority to charge anyone with a crime, I must disagree as even a private citizen, on his own action, can file a formal criminal complaint against anyone through the office of the Magistrate having jurisdiction over the location where the incident is alleged to have taken place.
      Granted, Constables actually writing the complaints with the affidavits of probable cause may require some additional training from local District Attorneys, but simply not knowing how to file a complaint doesn’t mean they don’t have the authority to do so, because they clearly do.

  3. Brianj Says:

    Soon to be a Pa. State Constable after the Nov. election.
    Very good article.

  4. Paul Dallard Says:

    Also Elected a Constable…Hope to get more into the law….

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