The Texas constable is provided for in the Texas Constitution of 1876 (Article 5, Section 18), which calls for the election of a constable in each Texas precinct of a county, and counties may have between one and eight precincts each depending on their population. The term of office for Texas constables is four years. However, when vacancies arise, the commissioner’s court of the respective county has the authority to appoint a replacement to serve out the remaining term. If no person is elected and qualified under law to fill an office of constable for seven consecutive years, the respective commissioner's court may declare the office dormant and it may not be filled by election or appointment. However, the commissioner's court may reinstate the office by a majority vote or by calling an election where a majority of precinct voters approve it.
In Texas, constables and their deputies are fully empowered peace officers with county-wide jurisdiction and thus, may legally exercise their authority in any precinct within their county. However, some constables’ offices limit themselves to providing law enforcement services only to their respective precinct, except in the case of serving civil and criminal process. Constables and their deputies may serve civil process in any precinct in their county and any contiguous county and can serve arrest warrants anywhere in the state. The duties of a Texas constable generally include providing bailiffs for the justice of the peace court(s) within his precinct and serving process issued there and from any other court. Moreover, some constables’ offices limit themselves to only these activities but others provide patrol, investigative, and security services as well.
In 2000, there were 2,630 full-time deputies and 418 reserve deputies working for the 760 constables’ offices in Texas. Of this number, 35% were primarily assigned to patrol, 33% to serving process, 12% to court security, and 7% to criminal investigations. The Harris County Precinct 4 and 5 Constables’ Offices are the largest constables’ offices in Texas with over 300 deputies each.
New constable qualifications
Constable qualifications as changed by HB 1588 of the 79th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature:
Local Government Code 86.0021 (Qualifications; Removal)
On March 5, 1823, John Tumlinson Sr., the first alcalde of the Colorado district of the Old 300 of Stephen Fuller Austin's colony, is considered by many Texas Ranger historians to be the first Texas Ranger killed in the line of duty. He wrote to the Baron de Bastrop in San Antonio that he had "appointed but one officer who acts in the capacity of constable to summon witnesses and bring offenders to justice." That appointee, Thomas V. Alley, thus became the first Anglo law enforcement officer in the future republic and state of Texas. Other prominent colonists who served as constable included John Austin and James Strange.
The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836) provided for the election in each county of a sheriff and "a sufficient number of constables." During the ten years of the republic's existence, thirty-eight constables were elected in twelve counties, the first in Nacogdoches County and the largest number (thirteen) in Harrisburg (later Harris) County. Court records indicate that violent crime was rare in the republic, except when horse or cattle thieves entered Texas from Arkansas or Louisiana; most indictments were for nonlethal crimes such as illegal gambling or assaults resulting from fights or scuffles. Juan N. Seguín and Elliott M. Millican both served as constables during the republic.
Shortly after Texas became a state, an act passed by the legislature specified that the constable should be "the conservator of the peace throughout the county," adding that "it shall be his duty to suppress all riots, routs, affrays, fighting, and unlawful assemblies, and he shall keep the peace, and shall cause all offenders to be arrested, and taken before some justice of the peace." Constables were the most active law-enforcement officials in many counties during the early statehood of Texas.
After Texas seceded from the United States in 1861, many county offices, including that of constable, remained unfilled or were filled by men less competent than their predecessors. During the military occupation of Texas after the Civil War, the election of county officials all but ceased, as the Union military appointed more than 200 individuals to state and county offices. A number of these appointees refused to serve; from 1865 to 1869, over one-third of the county offices in Texas were vacant. Many counties had no appointed or elected constables during this period. Austin, DeWitt, Fayette, McLennan, and Navarro counties had but a single constable each, appointed by Gen. Edward R. S. Canby, head of the Fifth Military District, in 1868-69.
Under the Constitution of 1869, a Reconstruction document that centralized many governmental functions, no constables were elected in Texas from 1869 to 1872, though some were appointed by justices of the peace. Many of these appointees lacked experience in handling violent offenders and access to secure jail facilities, and had few deputies to call upon for assistance. They were no match for the poor, embittered, and heavily armed former soldiers from both sides who roamed the state, often turning to crime. As a result, the office of constable began to diminish in importance, and the better-equipped county sheriffs began to assume a leading role in law enforcement. Still, a number of prominent Texas peace officers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries began their careers as constables or deputy constables, including Thomas R. Hickman, George A. Scarborough, and Jess Sweeten. In 1896, while serving as a United States deputy marshal, Scarborough shot and killed the controversial El Paso constable John Selman, who had himself gunned down the notorious John Wesley Hardin in 1895.
The Constitution of 1876, designed to decentralize control of the state government, reduced the power of many state officials and mandated that constables would once again be elected at the precinct level. A 1954 constitutional amendment extended their term of office from two years to four. Today, constables numbering approximately 780 are elected from precincts in most Texas counties. Their law-enforcement roles vary widely, but in general their police powers are no different from those of other peace officers in the state.
Complete records do not exist, but the most recent estimate is that at least ninety-three Texas constables have died in the line of duty, including sixty-seven in the twentieth century.
Constables may make a warrantless arrest for any offense committed in their presence or view anywhere in Texas, except for offenses under Texas Transportation Code, Title 7, Subtitle C, which covers most moving traffic violations. However, they may enforce all state and local laws while in their county, including traffic offenses. Constables may serve arrest warrants anywhere in Texas.
There is a popular misconception in Texas that a constable is the only official that can arrest a sheriff or the Texan governor. However, a constable is not the only official with the power to arrest a sheriff or governor. There is no statute that grants those officials immunity from arrest.