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Enforcers' might goes unchecked

This story was reported by Spotlight Team members Michael Rezendes, Beth Healy, Francie Latour, Heather Allen, and editor Walter V. Robinson. It was written by Robinson and Rezendes.

Third of four parts | August 1, 2006

They have the power to take your car, your money, and sometimes your freedom. And they bring some uncommon credentials to the job.

Consider these resume highlights:

Kenneth J. Dorsey: Manager of a Jamaica Plain gin mill. Ran illegal gaming operation. Busted by Boston Police. Rifle and shotgun confiscated. Guilty plea, 1994.

Kevin J. Dalton: Plymouth County deputy sheriff until 2001. Fired after State Police probe into alleged shakedown of a company seeking a contract with the sheriff's department, an accusation he denies.

Constance M. Sorenson: Filed for bankruptcy in 2003 with $47,000 in delinquent credit card debt. Fined for punching a woman in the mouth outside a bar. Arrest warrant pending for failure to pay $100 fine in another case. Along with that baggage, Sorenson, Dalton, and Dorsey also carry badges - as officers in the murkiest backwater of the Massachusetts law enforcement community. They earn their keep as constables, independent operators appointed by cities and towns to serve court papers and execute court orders.

In Boston alone there are 186 of them, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino has given arrest powers to every one, including Dorsey and 87 others with criminal arrest records for offenses including firearms violations, indecent assault and battery on a child, and impersonating a police officer. Seven have been appointed in spite of guilty verdicts, among them one convicted twice in the last four years of beating his wife. (See a full list of crimes that Boston constables have been arrested for here.)

Constables are an odd, anachronistic leftover from colonial days. No training is required, no oversight is provided, and no state agency keeps track of their identities, much less their numbers - an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 statewide.

Yet many among them, including Dorsey, Dalton, and Sorenson, are foot soldiers for the most aggressive debt collectors in Massachusetts. They make their money by night, or at first light, with a frightening thump on the door, seizing cars by the thousands from intimidated debtors who have missed, or ignored, court orders to pay their creditors.

Most constables prefer to knock politely during daylight hours to deliver subpoenas and the like for their $35 or $40 fee.

Message Board MESSAGE BOARD: Post your thoughts on debt collection practices in the US, and tell us if you have had any encounters with debt collectors.
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 DEBTORS' HELL PART 1: Preying on red-ink America
 DEBTORS' HELL PART 2: A court system compromised
 DEBTORS' HELL PART 4: National crisis, official silence

But their more aggressive colleagues do much, much better than that, thanks to a 1990 amendment to state law that allows them to charge whatever they like for auto seizures. The result is price-gouging: Constables charge debtors between $600 and $900 to accompany the tow truck that arrives to hook a car. The fee used to be capped at $25.

When debtors cannot raise the cash to pay the debt and the seizure fees, their cars are sold at auction. Here again the constables are part of the game: Proceeds of the auction are split among the constable, the tow lot, and the creditor. Almost always ignored, the Globe found, is a state law requiring that the first $700 of the sale proceeds be returned to debtors.

In this obscure trade, constables have some well-armed competitors: the county deputy sheriffs, who sit one short rung up the law enforcement ladder and have grabbed an increasing share of the business. For sheriffs, too, the pursuit of a payout can sometimes take precedence over fairness. In one case earlier this year, two deputy sheriffs in Worcester County threatened to arrest a woman who stood between them and her car - waving bankruptcy papers that should have exempted it from seizure. Nonetheless, she lost her car for 10 weeks.

Since 2001, sheriff's departments in just five counties - Worcester, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, and Middlesex - have seized about 2,500 cars for debt collectors, most often for a fee of $600 per car. And like constables, they rarely tell debtors they are entitled to the first $700 from the sale of a seized auto.

Printer friendly | E-mail to a friend | Other Special Reports
  Pages: [1]  [2]  [3]  [4]  [5]  | [Part One]  [Part Two]  [Part four] | Series homepage