Last week the final meeting of a legislative committee studying the possibility of decriminalizing traffic violations and treating them as civil matters moved forward with a bill draft request to do just that.
In Nevada, even minor traffic violations like driving with a broken tail light 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 — possibly even jail. Over the last few decades, Nevada courts and court-related services have become increasingly reliant on the accompanying fines and fees from criminalized traffic tickets for revenue.
Committee chairman Steve Yeager requested that the committee move forward with four bill draft requests, the first being to transition to a civil system of infractions for minor traffic offenses. The next three bill draft requests focus on how to improve the current system if the bill to move minor traffic offenses to a civil system fails to pass.
All four bill draft requests were advanced by the committee.
There are 22 states that have decriminalized minor traffic violations and imposed penalties that are civil in nature, meaning they do not lead to arrest if the indigent can’t pay.
Western states that have decriminalized minor traffic violations include Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington. California is currently in the process of proposing a civil model of adjudication for less serious traffic violations.
At the committee meeting, Leslie Turner with PLAN Action’s Mass Liberation Project, testified about her own experiences of being unable to pay for traffic tickets, which eventually lead to her arrest while she was still breastfeeding her infant child.
“We really hope that this committee can recommend that traffic be moved to civil court so that people will no longer be arrested for this,” Turner told the legislators.
Roger Pharr, a volunteer for the mass liberation project, read statistics on the local jail population.
“Today there are 349 people in local jails for traffic offenses,” Pharr said. “Nine of them are there for bicycle infractions, twenty-nine for pedestrian violations, like jaywalking, and an incredible 95 for license and registration issues.”
“These people are clearly not a public threat. They are just in jail because they don’t have money,” Pharr said.
Several people shared testimony on how an inability to pay for a ticket from a minor traffic violation lead to loss of jobs and homes, jail, and even deportation.
Yecenia Moya, testified that her sister was recently incarcerated and placed on an ICE hold which lead to her being detained for 30 days for driving without a license. During the time she was detained Moya said her sister lost her job and her apartment, devastating her life.
“I am here to ask, please send traffic violations as a civil matter,” Moya said holding back tears. “People lose their livelihood. People lose their lives. Families are being separated because of traffic violations. A simple traffic stop can cost you your entire life.”
Filmmaker and Libertarian candidate in the first congressional district Robert Strawder testified that many of the people in his neighborhood of North Las Vegas end up in jail as a result of their traffic tickets because they do not have the money to pay.
“I know a lot of individuals whose families were affected when their mom or their father was incarcerated because of a $250 speeding ticket,” said Strawder. “They lose their job. They can’t pay rent, they have to stay in the homeless shelters with their kids.”
“There really is an epidemic that’s going on with poverty,” said Strawder. “Other states are in on it, so why not us?”
Earlier this month, The American Bar Association created “Ten Guidelines on Court Fines and Fees” urging government agencies to promote law and policy to minimize excessive penalties if an individual cannot afford to pay them. While not directly advocating for decriminalizing traffic violations, the guidelines state that “courts should not impose fees, including fees for counsel, diversion programs, probation, payment plans, community service, or any other alternative to the payment of money,” when an individual is unable to pay.
Laura Martin, executive director of PLAN Action, said she sees lines of traffic officers everyday over-policing and over-ticketing in North Las Vegas— a city with a high rate of poverty and high concentration of minority communities.
“Is this problem so pervasive because there is an incentive to extract these fees from our community?” Martin asked, calling for a heat map of where police are pulling people over for traffic offenses.
Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who represents part of North Las Vegas, spoke of a constituent she helped in clearing her warrant, listing off a series of additional fines and fees the woman had to pay on top of her traffic ticket despite being in substantial financial hardship.
“The problem we are trying to solve is that these are actual poor people. The rich people are not being phased with the multiple collateral consequences,” Neal said.