Constables are Both Obscure and Controversial

Las Vegas -- Many people cannot name their congressman or state senator so chances are overwhelming that few Southern Nevadans know the identities of any of the 11 constables based in Clark County.

It is equally probable that few residents even know what a constable does.

Much of this has to do with the obscure duties assigned to a constable, a type of peace officer whose roots were established in the United States during the colonial period.

State law says that constables, who can appoint deputies, serve court documents and execute warrants. They serve eviction notices, summons in civil cases, notices of liens on property and subpoenas for witnesses. They also assist in garnishing wages. If they come knocking on your door, chances are it's not to deliver good news.

Although the Clark County Commission establishes minimum compensation levels for constables, those offices are primarily funded by the fees they collect for their services. State law includes a schedule of fees, ranging from $2 to $48, that constables can collect.

They also can cite motorists for driving vehicles that aren't properly registered and can even collect $100 fees from those individuals. They can collect $100 for having an abandoned vehicle removed from public property. And when it comes to collecting fines from defendants, the constables are entitled to $70 of the first $3,500 and one-half of 1 percent of anything above that amount.

They are also required to forward accident reports and related witness statements and photographs upon written demand to individuals who suffered damages due to an accident. Exceptions include confidential material or cases related to a fatality or serious injury, or commission of a felony.

Constables are elected to four-year terms not by city or county but by township, which merely feeds into the obscure nature of the office. The townships they represent in the county are Boulder, Bunkerville, Goodsprings, Henderson, Las Vegas, Laughlin, Mesquite, Moapa, Moapa Valley, North Las Vegas and Searchlight.

The office is a partisan one, with a breakdown of eight Republicans and three Democrats in Southern Nevada. Races for constable are typically listed toward the bottom of most election ballots and are largely ignored by the media. The incumbents all face reelection in 2014 and you're not likely to read or hear much about their campaigns.

But the office is not without controversy

Longtime residents will recall that Paul Espejo, former chief deputy constable for the Las Vegas Township, was sent to jail for six months in 1992 after admitting he stole $24,000 from the constable's office.

Constable Don Charleboix, Espejo's boss, faced even greater scrutiny when he became the target of a political corruption probe launched by the FBI. A grand jury indicted Charleboix in June 1993 on charges that included 11 counts of bribery for allegedly appointing individuals as deputies in exchange for campaign contributions. He also was charged with illegally using money from his deputies' health and welfare fund to lease a pickup truck and purchase guns and slot machines.

He ultimately resigned from office three months later and pleaded guilty to two gross misdemeanors, one of which involved misconduct by a public official.

The late former Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Nolen, who was appointed in 1993 by the Clark County Commission to replace Charleboix, also had a rocky tenure. Shortly after Nolen's appointment, the commission voted to convert the constable's office into a division of Metro Police in a bid to save taxpayers money. But that move, effective in January 1995, lasted only until August 1995, when the commission reinstated the constable's office and reappointed Nolen.

He soon found his conduct in office questioned by the Nevada Ethics Commission. In June 1997 the commission fined Nolen $5,000 for structuring his office in a way where he did not have to work to draw what was then a $63,000 salary. He was also cited for using constable equipment and employees for his own benefit.

But a district judge invalidated the commission's ruling, including the fine, on grounds that it should be up to voters to decide whether someone is worthy of office. After the matter was appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, Nolen and the commission reached a confidential settlement. He retained his office but chose not to run for reelection in 1998.

Constable troubles weren't confined to Las Vegas. Henderson Constable Jim Ebert lost his reelection bid in the 1994 primary after he was charged with felonies for allegedly receiving $4,600 in state workers' compensation without disclosing he was a constable. The following year he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of using false statements to receive workers' comp benefits and agreed to pay $3,500 in restitution.

One of the more peculiar challenges to Nevada election law in recent memory also involved a constable's race, with Independent American candidate Nicholas Hansen winning a challenge from incumbent Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell to appear on the 2002 ballot. Mitchell, a Republican, argued that because Hansen wasn't even 21, he didn't meet the minimum age requirement for an appointed peace officer and therefore would be ineligible to serve as constable.

The Nevada Supreme Court sided with Hansen's, overturning a district court decision that he be barred from the ballot because he wouldn't have turned 21 until after he took office. The high court concluded that constables attain peace officer status because of their office and therefore are exempt from the minimum age requirements for appointed peace officers.

It was of little consolation to Hansen, though, because Mitchell won reelection in a three-way race. Hansen earned barely more than 4 percent of the vote.

More recently Las Vegas Township Constable John Bonaventura fielded criticism in December from the likes of Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak and Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, for posting on the Internet a video of a proposed television reality show that they said made Bonaventura's deputy constables look foul-mouthed and unprofessional.

And then there was the case involving former Boulder City Constable Larry Markotay, who retired from office effective March 29, 2010, weeks after police seized 85 firearms from his home and office. While facing trial in District Court on charges of burglary, theft, grand larceny and possession of stolen property, the 44-year-old Markotay committed suicide at Sunset Station on April 24.

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