Thirty-seven states across the country consider traffic infractions civil matters that do not lead to jail time.
Nevada is not one of them.
In Nevada, even minor traffic infractions like speeding are treated as a misdemeanor, meaning a failure to appear in court or the inability to pay a ticket renders a person subject to a bench warrant and arrest, they are also hit with what has been a growing list of larger and larger administrative assessment fees that get levied on to fines.
Those fees for misdemeanor offences, like traffic violations, have also become a primary revenue model for state and local courts and affiliated programs, and have been for decades.
“Administrative assessment primarily derives from those traffic tickets making up the vast majority of misdemeanor offenses, and that revenue funds the judicial branch as well as those executive branch functions” that are court-related, said John McCormick, assistant court administrator at Administrative Office of the Courts, in an April meeting of a legislative committee studying the possibility of decriminalizing traffic violations and treating them as civil matters.
“Any sort of impact that changes those fees from criminal to civil matters and the ability to collect administrative assessments could impact the availability of funding for the supreme court and those executive branch functions at a legislative level,” McCormick told the committee.
In Las Vegas, poor and minority residents shoulder much of the burden of funding Municipal Courts from misdemeanors and traffic violations, according to a 2015 investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The investigation revealed that residents in the city of Las Vegas’ seven poorest, statistically black and Hispanic ZIP codes account for nearly two-thirds of those who owe payments to the courts.
Nationwide, minority drivers are more likely to be issued traffic tickets, according to a study by Stanford University. The study found that black drivers are 20 percent more likely to get a ticket (rather than a warning) than white drivers, and Hispanic drivers are 30 percent more likely to be ticketed than white drivers.
Prior to funding courts and other criminal justice purposes with administrative assessments, courts relied largely on federal funding — law enforcement administration grants from the Omnibus Crime Control and Streets Act of 1968. In that time the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was created to distribute block grants to states to improve and fund their criminal justice systems.
From the 1960s until the early 1980s a significant portion of the costs for the criminal justice system, including the courts in Nevada, were funded by LEAA grants.
However during the early 1980s, a recession, combined with a push from the Reagan administration to reduce spending on government programs, prompted Congress to cut roughly $40 billion from the 1982 budget, eliminating LEAA and its grants.
“In 1983 the state was left in a dilemma of sorts as to funding,” McCormick said.
During its 1983 session, the Nevada Legislature replaced the LEAA money by implementing administrative assessments to fund criminal justice programs, including the courts. That same year, Nevada passed legislation that authorized a $10 administrative assessment on all misdemeanors to fund the courts. Eventually administrative assessment fees went on to fund not only courts but also related projects such the Victims of Crime Fund and domestic violence intervention and prevention services.
After year of holding steady, a $10 administrative assessment facility fee was authorized in 1995, currently all 17 counties have added the fee in local ordinances.
In 1997 fees were increased by $5 on all misdemeanors, marking what would become a growth in both size and scope of misdemeanor administrative assessments.
In 2003 there was an additional $7 fee tacked on for specialty court and an additional $10 increase to the administrative assessments on all misdemeanors.
In 2010, during the depths of the great recession, there was an increase of $5 on all misdemeanors, to be allocated not toward courts or related programs, but to the state general fund.
Prior to that, there were failed pushes to impose even more additional administrative assessment fees on traffic offenses and other misdemeanors to fund public programs beyond the courts. A $25 traffic violation fee to fund emergency medical services and treatment of trauma was rejected in 2005. And in 2007 lawmakers rejected a proposed $5 traffic moving violation fee to fund volunteer emergency services in counties with a populations less than 100,000.
The administrative assessment fee for most misdemeanor offenses in Nevada is $123.
“The general feeling is that limited jurisdiction courts can’t squeeze any more blood out of the turn-up of misdemeanor defendants by and large and feel like they are being used as a collection agency and so they have a general opposition to imposing additional fees that they don’t think they’ll be able to collect,” McCormick said.
A cycle of dependency
The Elko judicial township serves a population of 42,000 people, according to the 2017 population estimate from the state demographer. During the 2017 fiscal year, about 52,000 traffic cases were filed in Elko municipal courts.
At the legislative committee meeting, Elko Township Justice of the Peace, Mason Simmons, said decriminalizing traffic violations and treating them as civil matters, thus ending the courts’ ability to collect administrative assessment fees for traffic tickets, would cripple the county’s justice system.
“It would require a wholesale reexamination of how you fund all these various entities,” Simmons said. “This goes back for decades. This structure has existed for a very long time.”
Still, over an eight-year period, there has been about a 33 percent reduction in administrative assessment collections. They have been falling every year, even as courts have become increasingly reliant on administrative assessment revenue from traffic violations to fund courts.
When committee chair Assemblyman Steven Yeager, D-Las Vegas, asked what could account for the loss of revenue, McCormick said, “I think obviously in the economic downturn Nevada was hit hard and it took a long time for our economy to recover. We have a lot of service industry and tourism type jobs so people just didn’t have the resources to pay administrative assessments.”
According to McCormick, more people have been asking courts to turn their administrative assessment fees and fines into community service. Courts allow jail time or community service as restitution for those who can not pay.
Courts are seeing that despite their robust collection efforts they could not manage to bring in the revenue from administrative assessment fees.
North Las Vegas — a city with a high rate of poverty and high concentration of minority communities — collected $5.7 million in fines, fees, and assessments out of the $7.2 million originally imposed by its municipal court for misdemeanors in fiscal 2017, indicating an inability to collect from the defendants it imposes fees on.
Judicial expenses in North Las Vegas for 2017 were about $6 million, revealing that the municipal court is entirely self-funded by the fines, fees, and assessments it imposes.
Since Nevada began relying on administrative fees in the early 1980s, administrative assessments fees have largely been increased for misdemeanor offenses rather than more major crimes like felonies.
“On felonies, it’s difficult to collect since you are sending someone to prison,” McCormick said.