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Kentucky’s constables are gods unto themselves, armed with badges and guns but almost always with little or no formal training. And their actions have grave consequences.

Constable Convicted In Laurel County Shooting Of Unarmed Man

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

A Laurel County jury has convicted Constable Bobby Joe Smith of reckless homicide and recommended that he serve a year in prison.

Smith, who had no formal law enforcement training, shot an unarmed man in a convenience store last March while trying to serve a warrant.

Smith had been indicted for manslaughter, but the jury found him guilty Wednesday night of the lesser charge, which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ incarceration. Smith is scheduled for final sentencing April 24.

An investigation last year by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WAVE 3 News focused on Smith’s case and detailed long-standing problems involving constables statewide. (Read “Kentucky Constables: Untrained And Unaccountable”)

Smith had received a tip that Brandon Stanley was among the handful of customers mingling inside the store. Camera footage showed Smith walking into the store, drawing his gun and positioning himself near the counter at the cash register. As Stanley, his hands raised, moved slowly down an aisle and toward the constable, Smith fired two shots.

Stanley dropped to the floor and died almost instantly -- less than 24 hours before his wedding.

Smith, 37, had been a constable for just 15 months. Like virtually all of Kentucky’s constables, he had no state-approved law enforcement training; he mainly worked at a local motorcycle dealership. Smith, through his father, Joe, declined to comment Thursday.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Jackie Steele, who prosecuted Smith, said the case reinforced his belief that constables either need to undergo the training that’s required of bona fide police officers, or else should be stripped of their law enforcement powers.

Steele said he plans to share his views with legislators prior to the 2018 General Assembly. But all efforts in recent years to bring constables to heel, including at least five legislative attempts to amend the constitution and give counties the option of eliminating constables, have gone nowhere.

State Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger, a longtime proponent of constable reform, introduced a bill this year. It never received a committee hearing.

Constables are elected in each of the state’s nearly 600 magisterial districts. The office is enshrined in Kentucky’s 1850 constitution, with the meager requirements contained in state law: A candidate for constable must be at least 24 years old, a resident of the state for two years and of the district for 12 months.

Most Kentucky constables don’t receive a salary. Instead, they’re paid for serving various legal documents, such as warrants and subpoenas. State law specifically exempts constables from the certification — and, thus, from the extensive training — that state and local police, deputy sheriffs and others must obtain.

R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.

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