While Democratic lawmakers were mulling over criminal justice reforms, there was a push to decriminalize traffic tickets and put a halt to a system that fills local jails with people arrested for outstanding speeding tickets, parking violations or driving with a broken taillight.
Like much of the justice system, current Nevada traffic laws have a hazardous effect on low-income communities who can’t pay fines and disproportionately affect black and brown people.
In the end, Assembly Bill 411, which sought to convert traffic offenses from criminal to civil matters, died. However, three other bills were passed that makes some changes to the court process and could potentially decrease the number of people who end up in jail.
“While we were disappointed that (decriminalization legislation) got pulled, we do know the legislation that did pass is going to have a positive impact on the community,” said Leslie Turner, who heads PLAN Action’s mass liberation project. “People still might get arrested but judges and courts are going to have to jump through more hoops before they issue a warrant.”
Following a 2018 legislative committee that examined traffic ticket decriminalization, four pieces of legislation were proposed to lessen the severity of infractions.
Though there was focus on the decriminalization measure, Assemblyman Steve Yeager, the bill’s sponsor, pulled the legislation in May ahead of a committee deadline.
In addition to push back from municipal courts, which complained converting systems to accommodate decriminalization would be costly and difficult, Yeager said there were unanswered questions such as would courts garnish wages and put people in a cycle of debt through civil litigation?
“There were supporters of the bill who were saying that wasn’t fair either,” Yeager said. “I wasn’t going to implement a system that could be worse for people.”
While Turner agreed that wage garnishment can put people in a difficult financial situation, she thinks those who’ve been jailed for traffic tickets, like herself, would “take that over sitting in a jail cell, especially as a single mom not knowing what will happen to my son.”
Turner added it is important that lawmakers hear directly from the people who would have to live with these bills to get a firsthand perspective rather than just “stakeholders” — prosecutors, public defenders, lobbyists.
Upon AB 411 dying, Yeager pulled out a few provisions and added pieces into the remaining three bills in an attempt to bolster their effectiveness.
Assembly Bill 434 establishes a 30-day grace period on missed court dates for minor traffic violations.
The bill also creates a “legislative declaration” that if a person is arrested for a traffic violation, they are immediately released and aren’t expected to stay in jail. “Basically, the legislative declaration is policymakers telling the courts they shouldn’t incarcerate people for minor traffic violations,” Yeager said.
If a judge decides still decides to incarcerate a person for a minor offense, Yeager added, it should give people grounds to fight the decision and have it overturned by another court.
The bill also makes sure that people who can’t pay tickets because of financial limitations don’t have their license suspended. If a person has multiple outstanding tickets and sets up a payment plan, the bill directs that payments should be applied to the earliest case first rather than splitting payments across multiple cases. Yeager said he has heard some courts doing this, though was never able to get confirmation.
“Say you had four cases and you made a payment to pay off one, but instead it was applied across all four,” he said. “Then you miss a payment. You get warrant and warrant fees on all four cases.”
Assembly Bill 110, another traffic reform, tackles some of the logistics of notifying a person about court dates and outstanding traffic tickets. If the court is having a difficult time tracking down a person about a court date, it opens the door for the Department of Motor Vehicle to share pertinent information.
The bill also gives officers the option to collect emails or cellphone numbers to notify people who receive tickets about court dates or outstanding citations.
Among the bill’s many provisions, if a court is unable to deliver a notice about an unpaid parking ticket, a warrant can’t be issued.
Assembly Bill 416, which addresses collection of fines and fees, mandates statewide that a $10 credit per hour of community service can go toward traffic tickets. Yeager added as the state raises the minimum wage to $12 over the next five years, the community service credit will increase to match.
The bill also clarifies that community service credits can be applied toward fines and fees — again, Yeager heard this wasn’t uniform in every Nevada court.
The legislation also mandates that after eight years, fines are deemed uncollectible, and dropped.
All three bills were signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak and go into effect Oct. 1.
Turner said the fight for reform isn’t over. With the dust settling on the 2019 session, PLAN’s mass liberation project is looking into developing an amnesty program, which allows people to pay tickets without any of the added fines and fees or without fear of being arrested if they have an outstanding warrant for those tickets.
The Las Vegas Justice Court formerly had an amnesty program in 2008 and 2009, but the program hasn’t been reintroduced.
Yeager also isn’t closing the door on decriminalizing traffic tickets. He is already redrafting legislation just in case it is still a needed step.
“This goes into effect Oct. 1, so we will have almost a year and a half (of information) by the time the next session starts,” Yeager said. “If the abuses we heard about are still happening, we will pursue a purely civil system.”