Time to stop jailing people for traffic tickets, lawmakers say

By: - March 18, 2019 1:49 am

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo and Assemblyman William McCurdy discuss criminal justice legislation at the Pearson Community Center.

In Nevada, people can still go to jail for speeding tickets, running a red light, driving with a broken tail light or even parking tickets.

Lawmakers are working on a two-track process to redress the grievance. One track would put an end to it outright. But warning that idea may not fly in Carson City, legislative sponsors are also working to at least tackle circumstances that lead to people being arrested for unpaid tickets.

Democratic state Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said often what keeps people from taking care of tickets are the logistics of coming to court — failing to appear can lead to bench warrants and being arrested. It could be the lack of notices reminding them of the court date because it was sent to an incorrect address, people simply forgot about a court date that was 90 days away, or even that the court sent out the wrong date.

“It’s my belief that more people want to take care of their traffic infractions, but daily life just gets in the way,” he said

Assembly Bill 110, which had its first hearing March 15 in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, seeks to reform a process that lands people in jail for failing to use a blinker or running a stop sign

Yeager said in some cases, the address on a license is different from a mailing address. The bill allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to share any additional information, such as other addresses, with the courts to aid in contacting people before court dates.

The legislation also specifically prohibits courts from issuing bench warrants on parking tickets when notices from the court were sent to a wrong address. “If we are not able to send out a notice, we shouldn’t be arresting offenders,” Yeager said.  

The bill would also allow but doesn’t mandate law enforcement to request a person’s email or cell phone when they are stopped on a traffic violations instead of making people rely on snail mail. People would be allowed to decline to give the information.

Improper notification isn’t the only obstacle. “If you’re hearing is scheduled at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, that might not be practical for you to make,” Yeager said.

Another component of AB 110, which Yeager called the heart of the bill, would allow courts to set up a system for people to make a plea by mail or online, either by email or through a website. The system would allow people to also contest the ticket or offer mitigating circumstances for the violation. “No court would be required to do this — it’s not an unfunded mandate,” Yeager said. “It is simply an option a court can choose to do.”

AB110 only addresses minor traffic violations, and Yeager added an amendment to specifically omit serious crimes such as driving under the influence or vehicular manslaughter.

The proposed legislation, with the amendment, has received support from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office as well as Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “We believe this could help reduce some of the strain on the criminal justice system with traffic-related citations,” said Chuck Callaway, the police director for Las Vegas Metropolitan Police.

Though the legislation improves the logistics of navigating the system, it doesn’t eliminate the fact that minor traffic violations are still criminal. “If you got a speeding ticket, that is a misdemeanor on your record,” Yeager said. “It’s not going to come up on background checks for employment, but it is a criminal misdemeanor and carries with it the potential punishment of six months in jail.”

Speaking March 16 at the Pearson Community Center for a criminal justice town hall hosted by Democratic Assemblyman William McCurdy, Yeager spoke on soon-to-be introduced legislation that would convert minor traffic violations from criminal to civil violations — 37 states consider traffic violations civil matters.

“Isn’t it time we stop arresting people for minor traffic infractions?” he asked. “It’s it time we stop suspending drivers licenses for people who cannot pay minor traffic infractions?”

Yeager added that multiple bills are expected to be introduced in the next week that would ultimately convert the system, though he told the audience there might be some resistance — fines from the current system provide revenue for the courts.

“It’s going to be like World War III,” he said. “That’s just what change looks like in our state sometimes.”

AB110, in a way, would be insurance in case there isn’t political will to convert traffic offenses from criminal to civil.

“If this Legislature decided not to go to a civil system, or if the implementation of a civil system was delayed, these are the improvements that were identified that we could make to our current criminal system,” Yeager said

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.