An hour before he was scheduled to stand trial on 40 felony charges of impersonating an officer and possession of forged instruments, a man accused of pretending to be a local constable and ticketing motorists entered a blind plea to just 10 of those charges.
Doug Roberts was arrested in July 2016 for writing tickets to several motorists while holding himself out to be a deputy Mobile County Constable. Roberts had registered to run for a constable position but had not been elected at the time of his arrest.
After more than a year and half of court filings and a series of attorney dismissals, Roberts was scheduled for trial March 19, but instead he entered a guilty plea to five counts each of impersonating a peace officer and possession of a forged instrument.
Each of those is a felony and carries a potential sentence ranging from one to 10 years in state prison. Roberts was also required to “forfeit his weapons, ammunition, police uniforms, police vests and any items which are used or associated with law enforcement.”
While the state recommended Roberts be taken into custody until his April 26 sentencing, Judge Michael Youngpeter allowed him to remain free because he’s had no incidents with his bond or with court appearances throughout a nearly two-year adjudication process.
Despite the plea agreement, Prosecutor Shelley Corley said the state had evidence to prosecute all the charges.
“While dressed in a police-style uniform with a badge, [Roberts] went to various businesses across Mobile and Mobile County and issued fake, false parking citations to people parking in those lots,” Corley said. “The citations were payable to a [post office] box that, through their investigation, the sheriff’s office was able to determine belonged to [Roberts].”
Defense Attorney Christine Hernandez didn’t deny the accusations but clarified that Roberts only had “a shirt and two vests” — neither of which identified him as a police officer — and only wrote tickets to people who were, in fact, illegally parked in handicapped spaces.
After the hearing, Hernandez also repeated what has long been Roberts’ primary defense: that he truly believed he was serving as a deputy constable because he’d been previously deputized by Constable Dale Dorsey. Dorsey has corroborated those claims in his own testimony as well.
The last-minute plea deal nullified Roberts’ right to a jury trial and would typically revoke his right to appeal his conviction and whatever sentence Youngpeter imposes in April. However, Hernandez preserved for appeal a question of law raised by Roberts’ case:
Can someone be charged with impersonating a peace officer for dressing like a Mobile County deputy constable if deputy constables aren’t considered peace officers in Mobile County?
That entire thesis is based on a 1995 Alabama Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit filed against the Mobile County Constables Association by multiple area law enforcement agencies.
Siding with the Alabama Department of Public Safety, Mobile Sheriff Tom Purvis and 10 municipal police chiefs, the court held that constables in Mobile County “have no authority to deputize any person as ‘deputy constable.’”
According to Hernandez, deputy constables are permissible in other areas of Alabama under the same statutes that created constables, but the 1995 court case eliminated the position in Mobile County. She claims the decision is an obscurity in a patchwork of statutes and case law, making it difficult for her client to know he wasn’t ever a deputy constable.
“From a legal standpoint, can he be charged with impersonating a deputy constable if they have said there are no deputy constables in Mobile County?” she asked. “He believed he was a deputy constable because a constable swore him in, but that person wasn’t a constable [in 1995]. An average person can look up laws, but if you weren’t a lawyer and didn’t know where to look, you wouldn’t know this case existed.”
In a more abstract argument, Hernandez also asked: “If you believe you are something, then can you also be guilty of impersonating that something?” She plans to raise the question to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals after Roberts’ sentencing.
Aside from the impersonation charges, Roberts’ pleaded guilty to five counts of “possession of a forged instrument” related to five tickets he wrote in July 2016 directing motorists to send payments for traffic violations to a personal post office box.
When asked why Roberts would direct the payments there, Hernandez again blamed the convoluted laws governing constables in Alabama.
“This is an extremely convoluted area of the law that the Alabama Legislature has the ability to fix and has so far seen fit to do nothing about, which has left citizens to wonder, ‘what does the law say?’” Hernandez said. “The Alabama Legislature has got some significant things they need to fix, and this is just one of them.”
As Lagniappe reported in 2016, even some constable groups agree with Hernandez on this point. However, multiple proposals for local reforms have proven unsuccessful in the Legislature, even as other states and other Alabama counties modernize constables’ role in law enforcement.
In that article, longtime Constable Leo Bullock said Alabama constables have the legal authority to write traffic tickets, though most don’t exercise that power. However, he said, any fees a constable might collect from traffic tickets should normally be directed back to the municipality where the tickets were written.
Hernandez, however, said the law as written treats each constable like an individual agency that, unlike the Mobile Police Department or sheriff’s office, doesn’t have physical locations or affiliated municipalities for motorists to send tickets to. Thus, Hernandez said, the post office box.
“They have to have a physical office,” she said. “Where else are you going to send something?”