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Kenneth J. Dorsey (left) and Constance M. Sorenson (right) have used constable powers to seize debtors' cars on behalf of collection agencies. Both, however, have faced their own financial and legal difficulties.
(Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

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A badge without scrutiny

The office of constable is as ancient as it is obscure, governed in Massachusetts by laws that date back to the 1600s. One power of the office - never repealed - is to ''take due notice of and prosecute all violations of law respecting the observance of the Lord's day, profane swearing and gambling.''

Nowadays, constables, and the deputy sheriffs who perform parallel work, busy themselves delivering subpoenas and other court papers, placing liens on real estate, and seizing personal property to satisfy court judgments - in the case of constables, judgments of no more than $2,500.

Where they differ is in accountability. Constables, for example, can legally operate only in the communities that license them. But that restriction, the Globe found, is often ignored.

Constables also largely operate in secret. There is no requirement for them to keep, or submit to scrutiny, records of their seizures. When the Globe set out to determine how many cars constables across the state have seized from debtors, almost all those asked refused to say. Records held by county sheriffs, by contrast, are public.

But what is clear, by the account of sheriffs, debt collectors, and constables themselves, is that it is constables who handle the bulk of the car seizures. Court records suggest their total runs to several thousand cars a year, across the state.

Sorenson's firm alone was seizing between 80 and 100 cars a month for two debt collection companies, according to affidavits filed in a court case involving the companies. And Dalton, who owns South Coast Legal Services, told the Globe he uses constables around the state as subcontractors to seize vehicles, though he refused to say how many cars they hook for him. One of his subcontractors, Dorsey - who took away Fitzpatrick's car - said he seizes between 12 and 30 cars a month.

And no one monitors their work. So little scrutinized are constables that some work with impunity in communities where they have no jurisdiction.

Sorenson, for example, represents herself as a constable, but her license, in Salem, expired in 2003. In an interview, Sorenson, 37, claimed to be a constable in Lynn and Medford, in addition to Salem. But officials in Lynn and Medford said they have no record she has ever been licensed to serve in either city. Sorenson has also been embroiled in legal disputes for dispatching constables to do seizures in communities where they are unlicensed.

And some constables who worked for her have been criticized for over-the-top tactics. One allegedly identified himself as a State Police officer, according to court papers filed in a 2001 lawsuit against a debt collector. Another constable allegedly threatened a debtor with criminal sanctions, even though debt collection is a civil matter.

''There's not one heavy-handed constable that I've ever worked with,'' Sorenson insisted. She reached a confidential settlement in the 2001 case, which she declined to discuss with the Globe.

She said she's now stopped seizing cars altogether. But in June, Sorenson identified herself as a constable when she seized two cars from a Grafton businessman.

Sorenson defended the work of constables. She said consumers who ignore court orders to pay their debts have no right to complain when the constables come calling, no matter the hour. She described her own workday as ''nine-to-five'', meaning 9 at night until 5 in the morning.

''I think you should pay those debts - especially consumer debt. ..... You can't take a credit card and go buy yourself a new television and expect to never have to pay for it, but people do,'' Sorenson said. ''I think everyone should be responsible - I do. I'm responsible.''

Not quite. A Globe review of federal bankruptcy files showed that Sorenson has twice filed for bankruptcy, most recently in 2003, when her credit card debts alone exceeded $47,000. After that, her lawyer sued her for not paying his fee and won a court judgment - along with authorization to have her car seized. But he decided against taking that step.

Sorenson sidestepped questions about her own financial problems, except to say: ''Defendants aren't all bad. They're like me and you.''

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