By JAMES DeHAVEN- LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
The Las Vegas Municipal Court wants to be able to arrest scofflaws, but it doesn’t necessarily want to lock them up.
Lawyers, defendants and bail bondsmen familiar with the court say it is willing to threaten defendants with arrest in order to collect millions of dollars in traffic fines and fix-it tickets every year but will do everything in its power to avoid actually throwing those defendants in jail, where it costs the city $175 per day to feed and house an average prisoner.
More than 18,000 people were arrested for nonviolent, nonmoving violations in Las Vegas in 2014, according to jail records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. A handful found themselves in cuffs for offenses as minor as littering or spitting on the sidewalk.
These are arrests both Metro and Municipal Court officials say they go out of their way to avoid, though nearly half of last year’s apprehensions were initiated by a bench warrant — arrest orders signed off on by judges looking to force low-level offenders to appear in court.
Combine Las Vegas’ arrest totals with $67 million — the amount of revenue the Municipal Court collected from those facing low-level traffic or nonmoving violations over the past four years — and one might be forgiven for calling the court “money hungry,” as several city employees have in recent weeks.
Or accusing its judges of overseeing a “racket,” as a Las Vegas bail bondsman did last week.
Or else suggesting Nevada lawmakers are complicit in the creation of a statewide court “collection agency,” as Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, did in testimony before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in late March.
Fiore has twice sponsored a bill that would go some way toward crippling that collection agency. Twice, that legislation has been snuffed out by opposition from judges and court officials.
Preserving the threat of arrest is something the Las Vegas court has proved perhaps especially willing to fight for — whether that means lobbying to defeat Fiore-sponsored legislation or making life difficult for private bail bondsmen who earn a living by hauling in defendants at no cost to the public.
So far, it’s a fight the court is winning.
“It’s all about the money,” a visibly frustrated Fiore said toward the end of a March 30 committee hearing. “Thirty-six other states do not think speeding is a crime. Nevada is quite unique.
“We arrest people as a collection agency, and that is not why we are elected.”
FIORE’S DECRIMINALIZATION BILL
Fiore, who represents roughly 64,500 Las Vegans north of Cheyenne Avenue near U.S. Highway 95, has twice brought a bill to the capital that would decriminalize minor traffic violations, legislation she said was inspired by constituents who were arrested or forced to spend time behind bars over a traffic ticket.
Her latest attempt, Assembly Bill 281, still would allow local courts to make arrests in DUI, aggressive driving and other, more serious traffic cases.
Local government and Municipal Court opposition appears to have brought the legislation to a halt in committee, where it likely will be converted into an interim legislative study — the same fate that befell Fiore’s first stab at the statute in 2013.
Fiscal notes from last month’s hearing on AB281 suggest local governments would lose as much as $33 million in combined annual fine and fee revenue if Fiore’s bill were to become law. Those figures don’t include the Clark County district attorney’s office, which spends 15 percent to 25 percent of its time on traffic tickets and could divert millions of dollars into investigating more serious crimes if those offenses were decriminalized, Fiore staffer Dan Burdish told legislators.
Las Vegas officials project their city would lose up to $16 million in each of the next three fiscal years under the proposed statute, which Municipal Court Administrator Dana Hlavac testified against in March.
He was joined by judges from Stateline, Las Vegas and Carson City, jurists who fretted over the bill’s “problematical” consequences for court revenue streams.
One judge worried that fewer defendants would pay court fines without the threat of arrest hanging over their heads. Another shuddered to think that the bill could create a “subculture” of such traffic court scofflaws.
A third feared the bill would divert court fine and fee revenue to the state and away from local jurisdictions, despite Fiore’s repeated assurances that those dollars would stay where they are.
The two-term assemblywoman’s staff reported they already had made changes in the draft legislation that addressed many of those concerns, including one that would allow municipalities to continue collecting up to $1,000 on a single civil penalty.
Assemblymen David Gardner, R-Las Vegas, and James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, stood up for the bill as written, as did representatives with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the Clark County and Washoe County public defender’s offices.
Each of those lawmakers, like Fiore, spoke as if the bill struck a personal chord.
“There are law-abiding people that get very busy with their lives and forget to pay one of their infractions,” Ohrenschall said. “I think that’s the concern a lot of us have and would like to see corrected.
“A night in jail may mean losing a job, so I think there’s a lot of collateral consequences we’re trying to fix.”
BAIL BONDSMEN TAKE A HIT
Blackjack Bonding’s Mike Taylor said the ripple effects of traffic court practices don’t stop at the courtroom door.
The bail bond industry — itself no stranger to allegations of shaking down vulnerable courtroom defendants — used to thrive in Las Vegas. Now, Taylor said, it is wilting under pressure from a Municipal Court system that wants to run it out of town.
Taylor said the city and county jails routinely refuse to jail defendants that he has managed to arrest or locate, opting instead simply to take cash from those scofflaws to quash a bench warrant.
He said both municipal and state prosecutors regularly collect bail from his and other companies anyway, arguing the bondsmen failed, by the court’s definition, to force a defendant to make an appearance, even when that defendant already has bought his or her way out of a bench warrant requiring them to show up at court.
That allows the court to get paid twice: once from the bond company and again when city marshals manage to find and bill court-enriching bench warrant fines to the bailed-out defendant.
Thanks to these and other pitfalls, Taylor and other Las Vegas bondsmen say they simply have stopped bothering to arrest defendants.
He said the court figures that every dollar a defendant doesn’t give a bondsman is a dollar the court eventually can collect itself, though such a policy could mean leaving unsavory characters on the streets.
“The court system has decided they don’t want bail bondsmen,” Taylor said. “They think they’re cutting out the middleman, but when they cut (defendants) loose, there’s no one out there watching them.”
Taylor said the court has been known to go through even more elaborate contortions to wring fees out of would-be Las Vegas prisoners at the Clark County Detention Center.
In those cases, he said, the court simply will refuse to let the county jail hand over offenders with an outstanding Las Vegas court warrant after they are done serving time for a county offense, instead encouraging county jail officials to release those prisoners to the streets.
Once the prisoners are released from county custody, city marshals can and often do catch up with them, billing court-enriching warrant fines and all manner of administrative fees to someone the county could have transferred into Las Vegas court custody at no cost to the defendant or the court.
Taylor’s account of the system was backed by longtime Las Vegas bail bondsman Paul Caruso, who said he, too, had stopped looking to bail out many court defendants.
Court Administrator Hlavac said it was his understanding that the city and the county trade inmates as many as four times a day. He said his court follows state laws governing bond writing and bail forfeiture and suggested the city’s jail wouldn’t turn away an inmate except for “issues such as a medical clearance.”
“The court does not compete with any entity,” Hlavac wrote in an email Thursday. “We serve the public as a whole in assuring that those who are alleged to have violated the laws are treated fairly and that those who are found to have violated the laws of our community are held accountable in accordance with the laws established by the elected leaders of our city and state.”
‘PAY OR GO TO JAIL’
City employees say Hlavac’s court is dead set on padding its bottom line and will continue to pursue those defendants who don’t pay up with jail time, a practice that tends to disproportionately harm poor and minority defendants who are less likely to be able to afford the court’s average $300 to $400 fine.
They have called such an approach to revenue collection “coercion,” part of a “pay-or-go-to-jail” system not unlike one U.S. Justice Department investigators uncovered in a scathing March report on unconstitutional, revenue-driven policing and courtroom practices in Ferguson, Mo. That’s where weeks of rioting and grand jury proceedings followed the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African-American, at the hands of a white police officer in August.
The officer, Darren Wilson, has not faced criminal charges in connection with that death.
Las Vegas court officials dispute the Ferguson comparison, explaining they do not “force people to pay money they can’t pay just so we can keep running our business.”
Forced or not, the court has found ways to squeeze more money out of fewer cases.
Per-case revenue is up 124 percent since fiscal year 2003, despite a 36 percent drop in the number of cases filed.
That’s thanks in part to several fine and fee hikes enacted over the past decade, including some changes that could see defendants spend months or years paying the court hundreds or thousands of dollars in late fees before even starting to pay down an initial past-due fine.
Critics chalk up the rest of the court’s revenue gains to a system that aims to leave criminals on the street, where it’s easier for the court to keep a hand in their wallet.
Records obtained by the Review-Journal show the Municipal Court collected $23 million in misdemeanor fines, fees and administrative assessments in 2014.
Some of that came from criminals with multiple battery or domestic violence convictions who paid fines tied to a lesser sentence or on top of jail time.
More of it came from ordinary residents charged with minor traffic offenses such as speeding or using a cellphone behind the wheel.
But the biggest chunk of the court’s citations came from people facing other traffic offenses — those who had let their car registration lapse, or who forgot to keep a copy of their auto insurance in the glove box.
Las Vegas marshals and Metro police arrested more than 11,000 individuals who committed such administrative violations in 2014, according to jail records.
That’s more than three times the total authorities cuffed for misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving and hit-and-run charges combined.
It’s also 600 more than the combined tally of arrests made on low-level drug, weapon, theft, assault and domestic violence charges.
“It’s all about the money,” said bail bondsman Taylor. “It has nothing to do with public safety.
“They talk about releasing people with victimless crimes. That’s bull——.”
Contact James DeHaven at email@example.com or 702-477-3839. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.