With recent talks about abolishing the office of constable in Macon County — something that was rejected by the County Commission in its Nov. 15 meeting — the question of what is the role of a constable has also been raised.
Constables are elected officials who have law enforcement powers, and often assist other deputized police officers.
According to the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), Macon County is one of 51 counties in Tennessee that still has constables. Some 44 counties have abolished the office of constable in their counties, a trend that has been going on since the 1970s when constables were written out of the state constitution, but were added back in through Tennessee Code Annotated.
In Macon County, there are five elected who can serve from their respective districts in the county, with their districts being drawn very similar to the school board districts. Constables are on the voting ballot in Macon County in the same way that other local offices, such as sheriff, county mayor, school board members, county commission, property assessor and others are presented.
Currently, Macon County has only three active constables, and really only two who consistently assist the other law enforcement in the area. The three who are currently in office and will be up for re-election in 2022 are Sammy Morgan (District 1), John David (District 2) and Tom Dallas (District 3). Districts 4 and 5 are open because the men elected to represent those districts apparently moved out of them, which strips them of their law enforcement powers.
“We don’t know when someone moves out of their district unless they tell us. It is my understanding that maybe two of them have moved out of their districts,” County Mayor Steve Jones said. “I know one of them has moved possibly out of state and we have tried to get in touch with that person, sending them certified mail and things through the county attorney, but we can’t get touch with that person.”
Of the three who are active, Morgan is elderly and has been re-elected to his position for many years, but seldom gets out now due to age and health concerns. David has been in office for four years now and lives in the Rocky Mound area of the county.
Dallas has been a constable since 2000, and spoke about what the responsibilities are with the office.
“The oath that we take says we are charged with keeping the peace, upholding the constitutions of the State of Tennessee and the United States of America,” Dallas said. “We take a straight, strict law enforcement oath, much like the oaths the sheriff, chiefs of police, deputies and officers take.”
Constables have full law enforcement powers, the same as a sheriff, chief of police or any fully commissioned law enforcement officer. However, their duties actually extend to the entire state, though they rarely, if ever, use those law enforcement powers outside their immediate county.
“We limit, except in rare circumstances, our law enforcement activity to the counties in which we are elected and work,” Dallas said.
Constables are allowed to carry weapons and function in a lot of ways the same as any other deputized officer would do.
“Tennessee Code Annotated defines police officer and how those definitions are written. It also defines that we as elected constables in those counties with law enforcement powers, have the same exact powers and authorizations as every other sworn police officer in the state. That means we can carry firearms. We can carry weapons. We can make arrests. We can make traffic stops, and we can technically do seizures if we stop somebody with drugs, all that stuff,” Dallas said.
There are some major differences, however. One of those is that if the constable makes an arrest of a person, they don’t have a jail necessarily to take them to and often would have to wait for another conty deputy or city officer to arrive and assist with the arrestee, unless they have a cage in the back of their personal vehicle to transport the person to the county jail.
Constables have to furnish their own cars, their own weapon and other items required to do their duty.
“Some of us have vehicles with cages in the back. My personal vehicle that I use for patrol does not have a cage in the back, so if I make an arrest, I still have to have an officer transport, and I have to take off from my regular job to go to court and testify and all that stuff,” Dallas said.
Dallas said he and the other constables in Macon County do their best to assist the local law enforcement, especially in times of need, such as if threatening weather is forecast or if a department might be shorthanded for a period of time due to vacations, holidays or other circumstances. Constables, themselves, have no set schedule or assignments.
“We work on no schedule. We are not required to go out. Nothing says I’ve got to work 10 hours a week, or 20 hours a month. It doesn’t define how I go about my business so I have always chosen in my off hours, if a take a day off, and there’s maybe something going on, likely to be a problem like disastrous weather coming, maybe the sheriff’s department or police department is extremely low on manpower, those are nights that historically, I have gone out, and sometimes just at night and patrolled, he said. “I drive around the county, listen to my radio, and if I hear something, if it’s on the other side of the county, and there’s somebody screaming for help or (saying) somebody is shooting at me, we may drive that direction to be an asset if they need it, or if it’s across the street from me, I may have to go in and initiate peacekeeping actions on my own or wait for a deputy to get there and we do it together and work as a team.”
Dallas said he stands ready to assist the other departments in the county.
“If he asks us for help, we’ll jump right in there. I personally have been in this county for 21 years and carried out drug raids, handled domestics, both with them and on my own till they got there. I’ve responded to intruders. I’ve cleared houses,” he said. “We’ve made traffic stops. We’ve made arrests and served papers and warrants, both civil and criminal. We have done and do anything and everything either the city police or the sheriff or his deputies may do. We work outside the city. I’ve worked inside the City of Lafayette and the City of Red Boiling Springs over the 20 years, with mutual cooperation of whoever the senior law enforcement is in that area at that time.”
There are also no salary opportunities for those who hold the office of constable.
“We get zero dollars,” Dallas said. “We don’t earn a penny from the taxpayer-funded budget. We provide our own cars, our own gas, our own ammunition and our own insurance. We pay for our own bond. Everything we do is paid for by ourselves.”
Part of the reward, however, is being able to serve the public and have their trust. At the Nov. 15 meeting where a motion was brought up to potentially abolish the office of constable in Macon County, a number of people in showed up to support keeping the constables.
“We’ve always tried to respect the people and be good stewards of the confidence they put in us,” Dallas said.