Northumberland County constable change spurs lawsuit
SHAMOKIN - Watsontown Borough plans to sue Northumberland County over its decision to no longer fund the use of state constables for prisoner transports.
Shamokin has already accepted an invitation to join the suit, and other municipalities that have their own police departments are considering the same.
As of Jan. 1, the county stopped paying for the service, saying it lost more than $104,000 in 2011. But the suit will ask the court to mandate that it's the county's responsibility.
"The borough, like many other municipalities in Northumberland County that have their own police force, is greatly troubled by the decision of the county to not fund the use of constables to transport defendants in criminal matters," attorney Ryan Tira, solicitor for Watsontown, wrote in a letter dated Jan. 3 and delivered to multiple municipalities.
"The borough intends to file an action, including claims seeking a declaratory judgment that the county's action violates statutory law and an order for mandamus requiring the county to pay for the constables transportation of prisoners in criminal matters," the letter states.
Participating municipal parties would equally split legal costs, while constables who work in the county would be sought to join the litigation, but not pay any legal costs, the letter says.
Joint effort sought
R. Craig Rhoades, Shamokin city councilman, questions whether the county can "just shut it off" after providing the constable service for many years.
He said he hopes a resolution is found before litigation, but, if it ends up in court, he said, "I am prepared, and I think the city's prepared, to take it all the way if it's necessary."
Rhoades said a united front by affected municipalities is crucial, and he encouraged others to join the cause.
"Doing it individually would be futile," he said. "If we do have a group that wants to come together, to me it's the best way."
Mount Carmel Borough and Mount Carmel Township each received the letter, but officials in those communities have not yet made a decision publicly on the invitation. Coal Township also received the letter, and officials announced at the Jan. 10 commissioners meeting that the township would not be getting involved.
County commissioners voted 2-1 in November to discontinue paying for state constables, who work as independent contractors, to transport prisoners from the county lockup in Sunbury to district courts for hearings and arraignments.
Reimbursement for constable costs is sought from prisoners through fines and costs collected by county probation. But that's the problem, commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy said in discontinuing the constable payments. County figures show a loss of $104,833.88 in 2011 from using the constable service.
Clausi said of 67 Pennsylvania counties, only four use constables for transporting prisoners.
Municipal leaders who oppose the decision say it simply shifts the financial burden to the local level - the same reasoning used by county Commissioner Rick Shoch in casting his dissenting vote.
That burden is expected to weigh heavier on municipalities since the use of police officers will likely lead to increases in overtime pay and equipment purchases.
Police chiefs, in speaking with The News-Item this week, say the county's decision will disrupt police services and negatively impact public safety. (See separate story.)
Clausi sticks by decision
Reached Friday, Clausi didn't back away from his vote to end the county's payment for constable service.
The county sheriff's department handles prisoner transports for common pleas court cases, and that is a responsibility borne and paid for by Northumberland County. When it comes to the lower court cases, he said prisoner transports are the responsibility of the municipalities involved.
"The issue is this, the police departments, they're the ones that arrest the people. They're responsible to transport and bring back the prisoners to the magistrate," Clausi said.
There are no laws on the books that say a county must fund prisoner transports, Clausi said, and he said fellow commissioner and frequent adversary Shoch helped orchestrate the litigation threat.
"Rick Shoch is behind the scene of all of this nonsense," he said.
Shoch laughed off Clausi's allegation. "I'm not behind them filing an action; that's absurd," he said.
Point Township, for which Shoch works as solicitor, received a letter from Watsontown. That's how he learned of the matter, he said, adding that Point Township has turned down Watsontown's offer.
"I don't know what the legal basis is," he said.
Still, his opinion is that the cost to Northumberland County taxpayers "in the aggregate" will be more expensive if municipalities pay for prisoner transports rather than the county.
Tira, the Watsontown solicitor, withheld comment on the litigation in a phone interview, including on which municipalities indicated support. He said he may provide further information on the subject at a later date.