For at least the fifth session in a row, Nevada lawmakers are looking to decriminalize traffic tickets — an action proponents say would move the state away from the vestiges of a Victorian-era debtor’s prison but that local governments continue to oppose because of how it might affect their budgets.
Minor traffic offenses are considered criminal misdemeanors that — if unpaid — escalate to warrants that can lead to arrest and are punishable by up to six months in jail. AB116 — a bill that Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) presented Thursday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee — would make them civil infractions and not punishable by jail time that can lead to job losses and other ills.
“It is a reality many Nevadans face — a simple $400 traffic ticket can have a serious adverse effect on a person's life,” said Alex Wong, a youth legislator who helped present the bill. “Courts, in an effort to enforce the offense, may issue criminal warrants for these people. Many times, this provides a tragic introduction to the criminal justice system.”
About 270,000 traffic warrants were pending in the Las Vegas Justice Court alone at the start of the pandemic, when that court announced it would temporarily not be enforcing those warrants because of the health crisis.
While Nevada is one of just 13 states to categorize a traffic ticket as a criminal issue, efforts to downgrade it have failed in sessions dating back to at least 2013 and in spite of an interim study on the topic. This time around, however, prosecutors who were previously opposed have added their support, saying they’d prefer to devote their resources to prosecuting serious crimes rather than traffic cases.
“Of all the discussions that we've had about criminal justice reform, it seems we’ve ignored the most obvious candidate for reclassification, in terms of bill passage,” said John Jones of the Clark County district attorney’s office. “We're talking about a low level, minor traffic offense like speeding, having your tail light out. It surprises most people to learn they're committing a misdemeanor offense when they commit a traffic violation.”
Nguyen emphasized that the bill would still allow serious driving-related offenses, such as vehicular manslaughter or driving under the influence, to be prosecuted criminally. And the measure would maintain a system of “points” or demerits on someone’s driving record that can lead to a license suspension.
But Nguyen’s biggest challenge is likely to be local governments. Representatives from Carson City, Douglas, Lyon, Storey, Lincoln and Clark counties, as well as the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson Reno and Sparks, testified in opposition, citing budget concerns. The City of North Las Vegas testified in neutral.
“I am aware of ... the current funding structure and I don't want to disrupt that,” Nguyen said. “And so, while I may probably fundamentally disagree that we should be funding our courts and governments on the backs of traffic citations, I also recognize that and I'm flexible enough to know that I need to be realistic, I need to ... come up with pragmatic solutions for our local governments.”
Leisa Moseley of the Fines and Fees Justice Center said that in spite of public records requests, local governments have not offered a clear picture of how much money they make from fines off traffic tickets. But several submitted fiscal notes estimating how much it would cost them to implement the bill and lose the ability to jail people for failing to pay up. Clark County topped the list, estimating it would lose nearly $13 million a year by having to make the change, out of annual general fund revenues of about $1 billion.
Lincoln County District Attorney Dylan Frehner said that the pandemic had reduced the county’s collection of fines and fees to less than $100,000 instead of the budgeted $350,000, putting a major wrench in a county general fund budget of $4 million. He also testified how time-consuming it can be to collect civil fines from people.
“The impact that this is going to put on us, to change our systems to be able to do additional work, to go outside and try to collect these — it's going to make it very difficult on the county,” he said.
But proponents of the bill question whether local governments are factoring in how much they would save by not sending traffic offenders through a criminal process. Public defender lobbyist John Piro said they needed to count time spent in jail, which is $190 per night at the Clark County Detention Center.
Also in opposition was Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway, who said that while the general concept of decriminalization was “great,” he didn’t want it to change procedures for officers in the field.
“We all know traffic violations — minor traffic violations — often lead to major arrests,” he said. “Just a couple of examples of that are in the case of Warren Jeffs, the child rapist who was stopped for a temporary plate on his vehicle, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was stopped with no license plate on his vehicle.”
In a tweet after the hearing, Nguyen pushed back on Callaway’s argument, saying that Jeffs was arrested on felony warrants for sex assault and that the police officer in the case would have still been able to stop the vehicle under the provisions of AB116.
Public commenter LaNiqua McCloud testified to the long-term consequences of the state’s current policy, saying she got arrested over a traffic ticket when she was six months pregnant and traveling to a high-risk pregnancy appointment. She was in jail for 17 hours before she was bailed out, and she said the experience has still held her back from certain opportunities in spite of having a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees.
Others spoke of how the practice disproportionately affects poorer Nevadans.
“We're not supposed to have debtors’ prisons in the United States. That's literally something out of a Charles Dickens novel,” said Jim Hoffman of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice. “The idea that people should be locked up because they're too poor to pay is something that we as a society, firmly reject.”
Nguyen said she was hopeful that this year’s venture into making the change would be more successful. She said she’s counted 37 stakeholder meetings she had already had on the bill and has both progressive and conservative supporters.
“I'm proud to have a more diverse group of individuals and organizations’ support, and I think that's what's needed when you're taking on such, like, a monumental task,” she said.
Thursday was the bill’s first hearing, and the committee did not vote on the measure. Committee chairman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said if the bill comes up for a committee vote, it would likely be amended from the current version; Nguyen said there are still active discussions about the structure of civil penalties for traffic violations and how that revenue should be disbursed.