Right to protest proves costly in Las Vegas

Bail voided for Strip protesters, not downtown activists

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department blocks off part of Fremont Street during the Black Lives Matter protest Saturday, May 30. (Photo by Jeniffer Solis)

The City of Las Vegas Municipal Court charged more than $35,000 in bail to Black Lives Matter protesters who exercised their First Amendment right on downtown Las Vegas streets earlier this month, according to records obtained by the Current. 

Unlike their counterparts in Clark County courts, who are voiding the $1,000 bail assessed against hundreds of protesters on the Las Vegas Strip, the city courts are standing firm.   

City records indicate 49 arrested protesters paid $640 each in cash bail and six people posted bond for the same amount — a total of $35,200.  Most of the arrests were from a May 30 protest. 

“The court does not have a single policy on releasing individuals based on their specific basis for incarceration,” the Las Vegas Municipal Court said in a statement. “The court utilizes the Nevada Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool and grants OR (own recognizance) release to ALL low-risk individuals.  In general, this would tend to apply to individuals whose only offense is for a non-violent protest incident.”

Despite that policy, some protesters who had no prior record were assessed bail, and only 29 protesters were released on their own recognizance, but only after spending the night and much of the morning in jail, according to records.

“It’s wrong!” Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom said via text.  “They were exercising their First Amendment right.”  Earlier in the month, Segerblom suggested the county repay arrested protesters who incurred fees from bail bond companies.

“No, it’s not common to arrest people for exercising their first amendment right,” says attorney Lisa Rasmussen. “It’s not okay either.   Most have been charged with failure to disburse or pedestrian blocking a roadway. I don’t know that anything can be done to stop this practice by the City, or to refund bail.”

The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Mass Liberation Project paid bail for 20 protesters, according to court records. PLAN and its Southern Nevada Executive Director Laura Martin paid bail for another five.

The challenge of processing a large volume of protesters was “exacerbated on the night of May 30 as during the protest windows at the RJC (Regional Justice Center) were broken out and the building ended up being evacuated,” city spokesman Jace Radke said via email. “This meant there were no court staffers to process cases until 6 a.m. the next morning, May 31.”

“We have court staff working 24/7, 365, but the evacuation of the RJC that night and into the next morning slowed the process,” he said.  

Protesters were thrust into crowded cells despite Gov. Steve Sisolak’s social distancing mandate, according to protester Nicholas Vosdoganis, who was arrested with his wife and two friends.

“The jail conditions were disgusting, and in spite of a global pandemic, the holding cells clearly had not been cleaned in months if not years,” Vosdoganis said of the city jail. “Visible mold on the walls, nonfunctional water fountains. Some jailed peaceful protesters were even told, ‘we don’t have time for that coronavirus shit’ and then jammed into holding cells 15-plus at a time with no masks, in cells with 12 seats.”

“The city is taking additional precautions at the jail to ensure safety in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” says spokesman Jace Radke, including social distancing, suspended visitation, and temperature screening of incoming inmates and officers.

State health official Julia Peek said Wednesday the state’s contact tracing efforts reveal that from June 4 to June 16, twelve percent of those newly diagnosed with COVID-19 had been to a “civic activist incident.” The state did not respond to questions about whether tracers inquire about arrests.

For the most part, Las Vegas City Council members declined to say whether the city jail and municipal court erred in holding protesters and imposing bail.  

“You’re telling me they were arrested for peaceful protesting.  No, they were arrested for whatever the charge was,” said Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman. 

Seaman, who was provided video of peaceful protesters being arrested for Provoking a Disturbance of the Peace, did not respond further.

Councilman Stavros Anthony, a former member of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, said through a spokeswoman he does not support assessing bail against peaceful protesters because he doesn’t support their arrest. Anthony, who is termed out on the city council, is seeking a seat on the Clark County Commission.  

Councilman Cedric Crear, who represents Ward 5, which includes the historic, predominantly Black westside of Las Vegas, declined to comment, as did his colleagues Olivia Diaz, Brian Knudsen. Michele Fiore and Mayor Carolyn Goodman did not respond to requests for comment. 

Battle Born Progress Executive Director Annette Magnus says she’s “not surprised” at the city’s actions and believes “we all must demand they void the bail as the County plans to do.”

Dana Gentry
Senior Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.