Arizona constables have gotten in trouble for excessive speeding, damaging government vehicles, impersonating police officers and public urination, an Arizona Republic investigation found.
Constables are elected officials charged with enforcing county court orders. They remove people from their homes during evictions, serve orders of protection and deliver subpoenas.
A Republic review found that complaints against constables are rare, and serious discipline is even more rare.
Since 2015, Arizonans have filed 142 complaints. Only 44 led to discipline. In nine cases involving seven constables, the Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board recommended the constable resign, retire or be suspended, but at least three constables did not resign when asked.
The constable code of conduct requires constables to uphold the law, maintain integrity, avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety, perform their duties impartially and maintain high standards of professionalism and training.
The Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board enforces the code of conduct and provides oversight but doesn’t have the power to force constables out of office.
About half of the upheld complaints were filed by the board itself for issues like missed training. A handful of others were filed by landlords alleging rude behavior or slow execution of eviction orders.
The rest were for more serious issues, like dangerous driving and threatening behavior.
Constables are required to drive a lot in their jobs and often encounter people unhappy about being evicted or being served warrants or orders to collect judgments and seize property.
The Constable Ethics Board successfully encouraged a few constables to leave office.
Some constables with serious infractions continue to serve.
Maricopa County Constable Scott Blake of the Hassyampa Precinct, who also chairs the Constable Board, said he believes the board mitigates inappropriate behavior by making sure constables complete training and administering disciplinary action when needed.
“Given the thousands of writs served each year by 70-plus Constables, we really don’t receive very many complaints,” he said.
Each of Arizona’s 81 justice precincts has one constable.
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Corinne Cooper, a Tucson landlord, tenant advocate and former law professor, is concerned about how “Arizona constables can urinate in yards and wreck county cars while not on duty” and still be in office.
The state ethics board has limited power to enforce discipline against constables who violate the constable code of conduct.
The board can recommend a constable resign but cannot require it. The board can also recommend suspending without pay, but the county board of supervisors is the only entity that can force a suspension.
A warning for erratic driving
In 2015, a woman filed a complaint against north Mesa Constable Ed Malles, alleging he slowed down considerably and swerved when she was driving behind him on U.S 60. She passed him and honked, but he didn’t acknowledge her.
The woman reported that Malles was on the phone and writing something on his steering wheel.
“His actions alarmed me as they put myself and my children, along with hundreds of other families, at risk for injury and death,” the woman wrote in her complaint.
She said she followed Malles to get his license plate number and found out he was a constable.
In his response to the board, Malles said he was on the phone with a landlord who had given him an incorrect address and was taking down the correct address when the woman honked.
He said he didn’t know why the woman was angry and perceived it as a “road rage incident” and ignored her.
“But nonetheless I was at fault and have endeavored to stop now, whenever possible, to make notes when I’m driving,” Malles wrote.
The Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board issued Malles a warning letter.
Malles had no more driving issues reported to the board. But since then, Malles has received a letter of admonishment, a letter of reprimand and a letter of warning from other complaints about rude behavior and professionalism.
Malles remained a constable until 2020. He ran for justice of the peace last year and lost.
A woman packs her belongings to store in a storage unit on March 11, 2021. The woman, her daughter and granddaughter were being evicted from the home they rented in El Mirage.
A woman packs her belongings to store in a storage unit on March 11, 2021. The woman, her daughter and granddaughter were being evicted from the home they rented in El Mirage.
THOMAS HAWTHORNE/THE REPUBLIC
Damaged vehicle, excessive speed
Maricopa County Manager Tom Manos filed a complaint in 2015 against downtown Phoenix Constable Doug Clark. The complaint alleged Clark drove faster than 90 mph in a county-owned vehicle more than 70 times and wrecked a county vehicle while off-duty.
Clark was asked to attend a Maricopa County driving course, and his use of a county vehicle was suspended for six months in 2013. He attended the course that summer.
In 2014, Clark was involved in an crash in a Maricopa County vehicle after stopping at a friend’s house, and the government-owned vehicle was totaled. Clark said he stopped at the house to help explain a probation letter sent to his friend’s 14-year-old son.
It wasn’t Clark’s responsibility as a constable to “mentor” his friend’s son, Manos said, saying the crash wouldn’t have happened if Clark hadn’t used the car outside his official capacity.
Beyond breaching policy, Clark violated state law and endangered people’s lives, Manos alleged.
“Mr. Manos fails to realize that I am an elected official,” Clark wrote in his response to the board. “I am a servant of the people. How dare Mr. Manos imply that I was not in official capacity.”
Clark also questioned the accuracy of the system tracking his speed in a county vehicle.
In December 2015, Manos recommended the Constable Ethics Board ask Clark to retire and refer his case to Superior Court.
In January 2016, the board determined Clark violated the Code of Conduct for Constables, called his behavior “unethical” and urged him to retire from office “immediately.”
He didn’t retire and was defeated in a 2018 primary election.
During the 2018 general election, Clark was elected as constable of Maricopa County’s Agua Fria district as a write-in candidate and continues to serve.
Constable Darlene Martinez places an eviction warning on a rental near downtown Phoenix on Oct. 20, 2021.
Pima County Constable Kristen Randall signs an eviction notice to a rental resident after taping the notice to the apartment window Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. Long delayed evictions are rolling out more than a month after the end of a federal moratorium that had protected tenants, including some who hadn’t paid rent for many months during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Constables are elected officials charged with enforcing county court orders, including evictions, serving orders of protection and delivering subpoenas.
DARRYL WEBB/SPECIAL FOR THE REPUBLIC; ROSS D. FRANKLIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Public urination, disability placard
Pima County Constable Oscar Vasquez in Precinct 4 was disciplined by the Constable Ethics Board five times over the past six years.
In 2017, Pima County officials filed a complaint alleging Vasquez illegally used a disability parking placard, sped in his government vehicle and failed to report a dent.
The disability placard belonged to his wife, but he used it in his government car that was supposed to be used only for official business, according to the complaint.
In his response to the board, Vasquez said his wife has dementia and he had to take her for medical appointments while also working. He said he improperly used it once when his wife was not in the car.
Vasquez wrote that he didn’t report the damage to his vehicle because he was waiting on security footage from when the damage occurred, saying he didn’t notice the damage until later.
“I was hit,” he wrote. “The vehicle was parked, and I was hit in an apartment parking lot. I didn’t plow into somebody. The vehicle was parked there.”
He also said he was speeding because he was following the flow of traffic.
The board issued Vasquez a letter of reprimand.
In 2019, a driver alleged Vasquez followed him home and yelled at him in his driveway. The driver said he and Vasquez were stopped and entered an intersection at about the same time, nearly resulting in a collision.
“As I opened my door, I could hear a male voice yelling, ‘Do you know what you did?’ You just made a California rolling stop and I almost plowed into you,'” the driver said. “Mr. Vasquez then threatened me saying he would give me a ticket the next time it happened.”
Vasquez denied many of the driver’s allegations, but the board voted to place Vasquez on probation for 30 days and issued a letter of reprimand.
The following year, Pima County officials again complained about Vasquez’s driving and vehicle damage.
“It has been identified that within three years of service Constable Oscar Vasquez has damaged each of the vehicles assigned to him,” the complaint said.
Vazquez responded he did not intentionally damage the vehicles.
“I wasn’t damaging vehicles,” he wrote. “That is wear and tear on a lot of the county’s roughest roads that I have in my area. I have a large area that includes a lot of unpaved roads.”
The Pima County administrator revoked his county vehicle privileges and said he had to use his personal vehicle for his constable duties.
The Constable Board initially placed him on a 180-day probation and required he take driver improvement and anger management classes.
When he did not complete the classes, the board recommended the Pima County Board of Supervisors suspend Vasquez without pay, which they did for four months, according to KOLD News 13.
The same year, the board issued Vasquez a letter of reprimand after he publicly urinated in a yard near where he was supposed to serve court papers.
Vasquez wrote in his response that he had a medical condition that caused him to need to relieve himself immediately and the closest public bathroom was nine miles away.
Earlier this year, the Constable Ethics Board asked Vasquez to resign after he refused to evict a family during the pandemic in February. When he did not resign, the board asked the Pima County Board of Supervisors to suspend him again.
“It wasn’t that I refused, I delayed an eviction until I secured shelter for the tenant, a mother with children,” Vasquez said in an interview.
In his written response to the Constable Board about the complaint, Vasquez said he reached out to the landlord Feb. 4 and said he needed to ensure the tenant had alternative housing so she was not left homeless.
“On the day that the complainant contacted me via phone, I started to reach out to community housing organizations to secure alternative housing for (the tenant) since it’s this office’s policy and belief that no persons being evicted should be left without housing during this COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote in the following paragraph. “My efforts were in vain as I could not reach any persons to assist in housing (her).”
The tenant was not covered by the federal moratorium on evictions.
The Constable Board said Vasquez defied the judge’s orders by refusing to do the eviction and recommended he resign, given his previous infractions. When he did not, the Pima County Board of Supervisors suspended him without pay for six months and also recommended he resign.
“The (constable) board is a partisan board,” Vasquez told The Republic last month.
Vasquez, who is set to be reinstated in December, has refused to resign.
An eviction notice is served at an apartment.
Glendale police backup Arrowhead Precinct constable Michael Branham while there trying to evict tenants staying in downtown Glendale on Oct. 20, 2021.
Glendale police assist a constable with an eviction in downtown Glendale on Oct. 20, 2021.
ROB SCHUMACHER/THE REPUBLIC; DARRYL WEBB/SPECIAL FOR THE REPUBLIC
Impersonating police officer
In 2015, Apache Junction filed a complaint against Pinal County Precinct 7 Constable John Acton after the city recommended misdemeanor criminal charges.
According to the complaint, Acton was driving on Hunt Highway when a driver merged into the lane in front of him. The driver told law enforcement Acton pulled up so close behind him he couldn’t see his headlights.
The driver pulled into a Fry’s parking lot, and Acton followed him and pulled up so close to his vehicle that he couldn’t exit, according to the complaint.
The driver said Acton, whose firearm was visible, yelled at him to lower his window and said something to the effect of, “If you ever do that again I will write you a ticket you can never get out of” and “I can write you so many tickers that it could make your head spin.”
Constables do not have the authority to write tickets. The Apache Junction prosecutor said Acton was essentially impersonating a police officer.
After Acton was convicted of two counts of disorderly conduct, paid his fines and attended an anger management course, the Constable Ethics Board issued him a letter of warning, saying he acted “well outside the scope of (his) duties and in a manner unbecoming of an officer of the court.”
In 2017, three complaints were filed against Acton for issues related to his behavior while on duty. On at least two occasions, the Constable Board asked Acton to resign.
The Pinal County Board of Supervisors suspended Acton for 60 days in 2017, but he did not resign and finished his term in 2018. He unsuccessfully ran for justice of the peace in 2018 and is no longer an elected official.
In 2018, the Arizona Constables Association filed a complaint against Mohave County Cerbat Justice Precinct Constable Ray Cullison after a female constable from another county reported he had forcibly grabbed her and tried to kiss her at an out-of-state conference.
The Arizona Constables Association is a lobbying group that also provides training for its members.
Two other Arizona constables corroborated the woman’s report, saying they heard her tell Cullison, “I don’t kiss married men.”
In his response, Cullison wrote he’d known the other constable for four years and always joked around with her. His behavior at the conference was supposed to be part of a joke, he said.
“I never intended for this to be offensive or degrading to (the other constable) in any way, and I would have apologized to her if I had known that she was obviously impacted,” Cullison wrote.
The board issued him a letter of reprimand.
Cullison has faced no further discipline and still serves as a constable.
Last year, the owner of a Russian market in north Phoenix filed a complaint against Maricopa County Constable Doug Middleton, who represented the Dreamy Draw Precinct, alleging the constable waved “a piece of paper threatening to shut everything down and stating that everyone was going to prison if he did not receive payment.”
“He was frightening customers and talking down to all my female employees,” the store owner wrote in his complaint.
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The owner wrote that when Middleton came back to the store to collect payment for the judgment the store owed, the constable refused to give him a receipt and told the man “we are not in your country.”
“I am a U.S. citizen born in Brooklyn, New York. To have someone say something like that was very upsetting. I know to say something is racist is a very serious accusation but that’s what it seemed when he said it,” the owner wrote.
Middleton responded the complaint was “untrue and misleading at best” and said the owner and his wife were condescending and rude during the situation.
The Constable Board voted to place Middleton on a 30-day probation, issued a letter of admonishment and required him to attend an anger management course.
The board also issued Middleton a letter of warning in 2017 when it determined he made demeaning and offensive comments while performing his duties.
Middleton didn’t run for reelection last year and is no longer an Arizona constable.
How to file a complaint against a constable
Complaints against constables can be filed on the board’s website or the form can be be mailed, emailed or faxed to the board’s office. Supporting evidence for the complaint can be attached.
The state’s Constable Board is made up of seven members: two constables, a justice of the peace, a county administrator, an appointee from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards Board, a member of the public appointed by the governor and a member of the Arizona Multifamily Association, also appointed by the governor.
If the board decides a complaint has merit, the constable can respond and the person who submitted the claim can submit additional information. Two months later, the board makes a final decision and suggest discipline recommendations.
The Constable Board can issue warning letters as well as suspension and retirement recommendations, but they can’t suspend constables or force the elected officials to step down.
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
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Published 10:00 AM MST Nov. 8, 2021
AUTHOR: Jessica Boehm, Catherine Reagor and Ralph Chapoco