The Honorable James B. Eldridge, Senate Chair
The Honorable Claire D. Cronin, House Chair
Joint Committee on the Judiciary
State House, Boston

Dear Chair Eldridge, Chair Cronin, and Members of the Committee,

On behalf of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association is writing to submit testimony in favor of H. 1372, An Act relative to constables. This bill would revise outdated provisions relative to constables and the activities in which they no longer participate. The bill would also remove their criminal policing authority throughout the Massachusetts General Laws, under which constables have wide latitude to perform a variety of criminal enforcement actions, authority granted long ago. We appreciate the Committee’s careful consideration of the local government position on policing and public safety with respect to outdated laws for constables.

Constables derive their broad powers to enforce civil and criminal statutes from colonial-era laws. While constables typically work on civil matters, such as serving summonses, and executing court orders, civil arrest warrants, evictions, asset recovery and seizures, there are increasing examples of constables acting to enforce criminal law. Unbeknownst to many, constables can arrest any person committing a misdemeanor or a felony in their presence. Constables work in the communities in which they are elected or appointed, but they do not report to the police chief. Police departments have hundreds of written policies and procedures, and numerous trainings and best practices, but constables are not subject to any of these. This lack of modern training sets constables apart from police and may result in unbecoming or illegal behavior, such as false arrests, which can result in improper restraint or injuries to the constable or to the arrestee, creating significant liability for cities and towns.

Moreover, because constables are not issued firearms by police departments, they often carry their own licensed firearms while on duty, presenting further issues relative to proper training, citizen interactions, and liability for cities and towns. Municipal police also continue to focus on community policing, which provides officers with important practices to connect positively with the public. Because of the broad powers constables have under current law, constables could undermine these efforts.

We draw on a recent example of constable work gone awry to reinforce our support for H. 1372. In August 2019, constables reportedly attempted to make a criminal arrest of a sex offender for a registration offense at a residence in Dorchester. Arriving at 11:00 p.m., by all appearances, the constables looked like actual police officers, carrying guns and wearing badges and bulletproof vests, frightening the residents inside the house who couldn’t identify the individuals as police officers and who refused to open the door. The constables had gone to the house based on a lead, but they had the wrong address. Without legislative intervention to remove certain powers, interactions like these could lead to even worse situations for which constables are ill-prepared, untrained and ungovernable. We ask the Committee to report this bill out favorably.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your office contact me or MMA Senior Legislative Analyst Lisa Adams at ladams@mma.org at any time.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director & CEO