Justice of the Peace faces discipline for seeking police help
Las Vegas Justice Court photo
A Las Vegas Justice of the Peace who says she tipped off Vice detectives to an alleged teen prostitution ring, but asked to keep it confidential out of concern for her daughter, is facing possible discipline over allegations she used her position as a judge to contact police.
The complaint against Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson, filed by the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission’s Executive Director and General Counsel Paul Deyhle, also alleges Tobiasson failed to immediately recuse herself from a case involving a man she suspected of attempting to recruit her daughter into prostitution.
Tobiasson is challenging the Commission’s request that she answer questions about the allegations before the commission has filed formal charges against her. Her attorney, William Terry, is asking the Nevada Supreme Court to intervene.
“A judge has a statutory and constitutional mandate to comply,” maintains Deyhle, noting he’d be prohibited from discussing the case if not for the Supreme Court challenge, which rendered the complaint public.
Deyhle declined to comment on the Commission’s investigative report, which appears to exonerate Tobiasson of the allegations leveled by the Commission.
“It seems the issue is that they are trying to make her answer questions so that they have enough information to write up the formal statement of charges against her,” says UNLV Professor Rebecca Gill, Director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, who researches judicial practices and teaches courses on the judiciary.
“In 2015-2016, Respondent improperly used her position as a judge to contact Las Vegas Metropolitan Police vice detectives regarding a sex trafficking ring involving the storefront Top Notch, Shane Valentine and Respondent’s daughter,” Commission chairman Gary Vause wrote in the Commission’s Determination of Cause for Response to Complaint. “Respondent would not have had this type of access to Metro vice detectives without her position as a justice of the peace.”
The Commission alleges Tobiasson failed to comply with the law and the judicial code, failed to act in a manner “that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and avoiding impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, and failed to avoid abuse of the prestige of judicial office.”
It further alleges Tobiasson violated rules on external influences on judicial conduct, competence and disqualification.
“The Commission at this time has not made a finding of whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a formal hearing,” Deyhle wrote Tobiasson in a November 7 letter.
Tobiasson said she provided information to detectives appearing before her about an alleged underage prostitution ring operating out of a clothing store her daughter briefly worked at and later frequented. She also told police she suspected a young man named Shane Valentine was recruiting teen girls into prostitution.
Valentine is currently in prison on unrelated charges and has recently resurfaced as a person of interest in a double murder.
“Respondent stated that she wanted Metro to investigate the sex trafficking ring and close down the storefront in which the ring was headquartered. Respondent said that she did not want to file a formal complaint with Metro but wanted to keep the matter confidential,” Commission Chairman Gary Vause wrote in the the Commission’s Determination of Cause.
Tobiasson willingly admits she told police about her plight.
“I would tell anybody who would listen,” she says. “I’d tell cops. I’d tell people at the grocery store, because I was so upset about it.”
Tobiasson says she continued giving police information long after her daughter’s brief employment at Top Knotch ended.
“What the detectives would regularly say to me is ‘Well, if your daughter’s not hanging out there, what do you want us to do?’ I wasn’t asking them to do anything for me or my daughter. I was doing this long after my daughter was safe. I wanted them to investigate. Does it matter whose daughters are being victimized?”
“The main argument they make is that she had access to speak to the detectives and make all of these requests because of her position as Justice of the Peace,” says Gill. “This is a bit silly. There’s nothing in here that she was able to do because of her position.”
“She did admit to speaking to the Vice detectives when she saw them in court, but it doesn’t seem that she would have been precluded from reaching out to them if she had been a private citizen in the court. It does not appear that she threatened to take any particular actions in her official capacity against the police or prosecutors, and nowhere is it argued that she made any decisions that might have been influenced by her spat with the Sheriff and the prosecutor,” adds Gill.
“Let’s not forget that for 20 years before I was a JP, I’d already been a prosecutor and married to a cop,” says Tobiasson, whose husband is retired from Metro.
Days after the KLAS interview aired, Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson failed in a secret attempt to have Tobiasson removed from the criminal case docket. Both now deny any involvement in filing the complaint against Tobiasson with the Judicial Discipline Commission.
The complaint against Tobiasson, based on the KLAS I-Team story, alleges “Judge Tobiasson also contacted Sheriff Joe Lombardo in an attempt to assist her daughter.”
Print and video versions of the story make no mention of Tobiasson contacting Lombardo.
“I never called Joe. He called me,” says Tobiasson, noting their relationship precedes her service on the bench. “I dated the sheriff when I was 25-years-old, I believe, in 1994.”
Lombardo confirms the two dated briefly.
Deyhle declined to address the discrepancies in the complaint.
The Commission also alleges ”Respondent failed to immediately recuse herself, due to the connection between Respondent’s daughter and Mr. Valentine, … when Shane Valentine came before Respondent on domestic violence charges in 2016.”
“My daughter had said, ‘Mom, if he ever finds out I told you about him, he’ll kill me,’” Tobiasson recalled. “When he showed up in court, I was freaked out. I knew if I recused at that moment, he would know. So I called the attorneys in and the agreement was if he wasn’t going to take a deal, I’d have to recuse, because I couldn’t preside over a trial. But the state made him an offer. There’s no conflict in taking the plea.”
“It was full disclosure,” Tobiasson says. “I didn’t hide it from anybody. The attorneys in there agreed it was probably the best way to proceed to protect my child. I said if he came back to court, I’d recuse. That’s what happened. He failed to start his classes by his status check and I recused.”
Gill says the Commission’s “failure to recuse” accusation doesn’t appear to hold water.
“Rule 2.11 of the Judicial Canons requires the judge to recuse herself if ‘the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party’s lawyer, or personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute in the proceeding.'”
Gill says the complaint against Tobiasson appears to be whistle blower retaliation.
“It might be that they are hoping to cast her as having ‘engaged in other conduct that reflects adversely on the judge’s honesty, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge,’ Gill says, citing Rule 1.2 of the Judicial Canons. “This, I’d argue, is where gender dynamics might kick in. Women have long been labeled “crazy” or “hysterical” for making bold statements publicly.”
Prosecutor, Judge and Jury?
The Judicial Discipline Commission consists of seven members: two judges appointed by the Nevada Supreme Court, two attorneys appointed by the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Nevada; and three lay persons appointed by the Governor of the State of Nevada.
Gary Vause, owner of Litl’l Scholar Child Care is the Chairman. Stefanie Humphrey is the Vice-Chair. Members are Karl Armstrong, an attorney with the State of Nevada Department of Administration; Honorable Mark R. Denton of the Eighth Judicial District Court; Bruce Hahn, Assistant District Attorney of Washoe County; Jon Krmpotic, President of KLS Planning & Design Group; and the Honorable Jerome Polaha, Second Judicial District Court.
“In exceptional circumstances, in which the Commission has substantial reason to believe that a complainant may in likelihood suffer untoward risk of embarrassment, harassment, or other detrimental consequences, the Commission may on request, authorize its Executive Director to sign and swear to a complaint on information and belief, in the complainant’s stead,” says the commission’s website.
Article VI Section 21 (7) of the Nevada Constitution gives the Commission the right to adopt rules of procedures “for the conduct of its hearings and any other procedural rules it deems necessary to carry out its duties.”
Tobiasson’s motion to the Supreme Court states the procedures the Judicial Commission is relying on are flawed, despite having been employed in the past without challenge.
“That does not mean, however, that they are permitted to do so and the instant Petition requires a determination by this Honorable Court as to whether or not the Commission is acting outside the scope of their authority in mandating that a sitting judge answer interrogatories prior to the filing of a formal statement of charges.”
Tobiasson is no stranger to the Commission, which disciplined her in 2017 for improperly intervening in a Canadian divorce case involving an acquaintance. She was fined $1,000.
The Commission’s own investigative report in the current case against Tobiasson states “Judge Tobiasson did nothing more than inform the police of the information she had learned about the suspected prostitution ring and did not use her position on the bench to influence LVMPD detectives.” The report also confirms both the prosecutor and defense attorney in the Valentine case “did not feel there would be a conflict for Judge Tobiasson to preside in Valentine’s entering his plea and imposing the negotiated sentence.”
“In all, this still seems to me like an attempt to publicly discredit Judge Tobiasson in order to reduce the possible damage her comments might cause,” suggests Gill. “Or maybe just to stick it to her for speaking out publicly and talking to the FBI about the Vice team. However, the judicial canons are written to be aspirational to the point that they are hopelessly vague in situations like this.”
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