With the help of their taxpayer-funded offices, five Harris County constables have been using a little-known eviction fee to add thousands of dollars a year to their base $120,000 annual salaries.
State law allows a constable to pocket fees – ranging from $10 to $20 – for serving a “notice to vacate,” the first step a landlord must take before filing an eviction proceeding in Justice of the Peace Court.
Former Constable Jack Abercia, who resigned in January under federal indictment, made up to $36,000 a year in fees for notices delivered by a county-paid deputy, according to the Harris County Attorney’s Office.
Landlords can deliver the eviction notice themselves, but several constables explained that landlords prefer hiring a third party to avoid a confrontation or a dispute about whether the notice was delivered.
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan began examining the practice last year after several constables sought legal guidance. Constables are advised they can use office staff and equipment to process the notices, since the use of those county resources is considered incidental, said Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray.
State law and a 1997 Texas attorney general’s opinion prohibit constables from delivering the notices on county time, and they cannot wear a uniform, drive a county car, or display a badge while doing it.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it makes “a little bit of sense” to allow the use of county resources to maintain eviction notices, since state law gives constables the authority to deliver them.
He noted other Texas statutes give constables the authority, while on county time and in uniform, to deliver other court papers related to evictions and legal matters, and fees collected are given to the county.
“It’s a bad law. There needs to be some legislation that makes it clear,” Radack said.
For once, I agree fully with Steve Radack. The Lege needs to clean this up. Abercia allegedly was not following that legal guidance from the County Attorney’s office, so regardless of what the law is we still need people to actually obey it, but let’s start by making the law better. I would suggest that if this is to be allowed at all that it be done as an official county function, by uniformed constables, with the fees being collected by the county and the records of such fees being publicly available. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in a transparent and accountable fashion. If not, then it shouldn’t be done at all.