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Grand jury indicts county constable on two felony charges

A Washington County constable and employee with the county’s Highway Department has been indicted on auto burglary and theft charges.
Last month, grand jurors returned a true bill on Joshua Layne Burleson, who was elected to serve as a constable in the First District of Washington County in August 2012. He also works as a full-time employee for the county as part of the Highway Department’s asphalt crew.
According to police documents, it was just a month after being elected constable that Burleson allegedly stole a $4,000 mountain bike from the back of a truck parked at a residence on Heritage Place Drive in Jonesborough.
Burleson allegedly pawned the stolen property for $60 in November 2012 at a business in town.
Jonesborough police found and recovered the bike in January, returning it to its rightful owner. They traced its sale at the local business to Burleson.
According to District Attorney Tony Clark, records indicate Burleson admitted in a statement to pawning the bicycle. While he did not confess to stealing the bike, Burleson did sign a slip at the pawn shop indicating he owned the property, Clark said.
“He said he needed gas money or something like that,” Clark said as the reason Burleson gave in his statement for pawning the bicycle.
Burleson was booked into the Washington County Detention Center on May 28 after being served the presentment for one count of auto burglary and one count of theft over $1,000, both felony offenses.
When contacted by the Herald & Tribune late last week, Rick Gillenwater, president of the Washington County Constables Association, confirmed Burleson is still a constable “as far as I know,” adding that he was only “somewhat aware” of the charges against Burleson.
“I don’t know nothing about the details about what happened,” Gillenwater said. “I don’t know enough about it to comment. As president of the Washington County Constables Association, I am going to have to refer you to the D.A.”
A few moments later, Gillenwater noted that although Burleson is still a constable, he may be facing some disciplinary action.
“I think he has been suspended and he cannot perform any duties as a constable (until it goes through the court system),” Gillenwater said.
It is unclear who would have imposed such disciplinary action.
“I don’t know that anybody would have the authority to do that except for a judge,” County Attorney John Rambo said when asked about the possible suspension during a phone interview late last week. “They are elected directly by the voters.”
Constables in Washington County are elected to serve four-year terms. They are considered officers of the Tennessee Judicial System with full powers of arrest under state law.
According to the Tennessee Constables Association, constables are “charged with keeping the peace and with the enforcement of the laws of the state, county and its cities.”
Services offered by constables include the delivery of legal documents and subpoenas as well as handling evictions, security checks at homes and businesses and garnishment issues. They do not receive a salary.
According to Rambo, either he or Clark would have to file what is called an “ouster suit” to remove Burleson from his constable position.
“I have a responsibility to do a thorough investigation before I file an ouster suit,” Rambo said, noting he is in the beginning stages of that independent investigation now. “I will consult with General Clark and talk to the Jonesborough Police Department. I’m going to do my own investigation and not rely on someone else’s or rely on the indictment.”
Rambo said he has requested the file on the case from the District Attorney’s Office after recently hearing “in passing that something might be up.”
In order to win an ouster lawsuit, Rambo said there must be “clear and convincing evidence” that the crimes were committed by the individual. It’s a standard slightly lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for a criminal conviction.
While some wait for a conviction before filing such a lawsuit, others do not, Rambo said. “It’s at the discretion of the D.A. or county attorney,” he noted.
Rambo can bring an ouster suit against Burleson without seeking authorization from the county mayor or commissioners to do so, he added.
As for whether Burleson will keep his job with the county, that is not up to Rambo.
“That will be a decision of the county official he works for,” Rambo said. “I have not talked to (Highway Superintendent Johnny Deakins) about this yet.”
Attempts to contact Burleson for comment regarding the indictment were not immediately successful.