Limits on police use of force, expanded sick leave and CBD for pets among new laws kicking in

Of the hundreds of bills passed by the Legislature during the 2021 session, roughly 150 began to take effect Friday, including a law prohibiting the suspension of a driver’s license over unpaid fines or fees and policies aimed at limiting police use of force.

The new laws taking effect also include a requirement that employers allow employees to use sick leave to care for ill family members, a reduction in the penalties imposed on minors found in possession of alcohol or marijuana and an authorization for veterinarians to administer certain CBD products to animals. And starting today, purchasing a new Vegas Golden Knights license plate will cost an extra $10 (the extra proceeds go to charity).

Although the legislative session adjourned in June, not all bills approved by lawmakers kick in immediately — many approved bills do not become law for months to allow state agencies or local governments time to implement the new changes. The next major implementation date for new laws is Jan. 1, 2022, when more than 50 new laws will take effect.

Here’s a look at the new laws that are now in effect:

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

SB219: Prohibits suspension of a driver’s license for unpaid fines or fees

This new law, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), removes a court’s authority to suspend a driver’s license or prohibit a defendant from applying for a driver’s license as the result of any unpaid fine, fee or restitution. 

Driver’s license suspensions have frequently been used as a tool to enforce collection of court-related debts usually related to traffic citations. However, advocates for criminal justice reform have argued that the system of suspensions disproportionately affects people who are poor and may be unable to pay off debts without the ability to drive to their jobs.

The law could lead to the reinstatement of thousands of suspended drivers’ licenses because it also applies to drivers whose licenses were suspended for court-related debt before Oct. 1.

Between July 2017 and June 2019, more than 38,000 Nevadans had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid court fines and fees, and The Nevada Current reported earlier this week that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has already identified more than 33,000 licenses that could be eligible for reinstatement under the new law.

As the DMV reviews different cases, the agency will send postcards to eligible drivers, informing them that their license has been automatically reinstated. Those who receive that notice can resume legally driving if their license has not expired.

“Without the ability to legally drive, it’s impossible for many Nevadans to get to work and access basic necessities,” Leisa Moseley, Nevada state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said in a statement. “This practice has targeted the most vulnerable among us and this new law will go a long way toward ending the criminalization of poverty.”

SB212: Limits on police use of force

This sweeping police reform bill, sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), places additional limits on police use of force, use of restraint chairs and police dispersal techniques during protests.

Under the new law, police officers are required to use de-escalation techniques and other alternatives before resorting to higher levels of force to arrest a person, with police agencies required to adopt formal use of force policies.

The law also limits use of the restraint chair to no more than two hours unless authorized by a supervising officer and bans its use for a person who is pregnant. And the law puts limits on police activities during protests or demonstrations, prohibiting officers from firing nonlethal rounds “indiscriminately” into a crowd or targeting a person’s head, pelvis or other vital areas.

Last year, Las Vegas and Reno saw saw heated and at times violent protests against police brutality in the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, during which more than two dozen police were injured (including the paralyzation of officer Shay Mikalonis) while dozens more protesters were arrested or forcibly dispersed from protest areas with rubber bullets and pepper spray. One civilian, Jorge Gomez, was killed by Metro officers during the protest in what was ruled a justified use of deadly force.

“This bill perfectly hits on the places that it's necessary to have reform without imposing on the ability of an officer to utilize their good judgment and their training to effectuate their jobs adequately,” Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) said during the session. “But it allows for better community trust, better community relationships and for the progress and improvement of our law enforcement agencies moving forward.”

The law additionally prohibits an officer from using deadly force against people posing a danger to themselves, if they are not also posing an imminent threat to the officer or others.

AB158: Easing penalties for youth found with marijuana

Starting today, minors caught purchasing or in possession of alcohol or cannabis will be subject to reduced penalties, including community service instead of fines and possible jail time.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent during the session, bill sponsor Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) framed the measure as a way of being constructive with children who make mistakes, rather than strictly punitive. Proponents of the measure have also described the bill as another way to help the communities most negatively affected by the War on Drugs.

For people under the age of 21 who are found guilty of a misdemeanor for possessing, consuming or purchasing alcohol or possessing less than one ounce of cannabis, the bill gets rid of misdemeanor penalties of up to six months of jail time and up to a $1,000 fine. Instead, it calls for up to 24 hours of community service and a requirement to attend a meeting of a panel of victims injured by a person who was driving under the influence.

The bill also revises the penalties for a second violation by requiring up to 100 hours of counseling or participation in an educational program, support group or treatment program.

SB50: Limiting the use of no-knock search warrants

This law, sponsored by Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office, prohibits the issuance of no-knock warrants unless a sworn affidavit demonstrates that the underlying crime is a felony that involves a significant and imminent threat to public safety and that the warrant is necessary to prevent significant harm to the officer or another person. The sworn affidavit must also describe why there are no reasonable alternatives for carrying out the arrest other than through a no-knock warrant.

Last year, the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, during a late-night raid at her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky prompted calls from activists to put an end to no-knock warrants. No-knock warrants are typically used to capitalize on the element of surprise when officers have reasonable grounds to expect violent resistance.

During the initial hearing of the bill in February, Ford said Taylor’s death led to him bringing the bill forward.

When executing a warrant, officers typically follow the knock-and-announce rule, by which officers must first knock, identify themselves and their intent and then wait a reasonable amount of time before entry. No-knock warrants allow officers to enter without announcing their presence.

The law also requires peace officers to wear prominent insignia that make them identifiable as peace officers, as well as portable recording devices, when executing a no-knock warrant.

AB440: Citations instead of arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors

Beginning today, police officers are required to issue citations for offenses punishable as misdemeanors that are not repeat offenses, violent crimes, DUIs, violations of protective orders or stalking.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent in June, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway said he “adamantly opposed” the bill throughout the session because it strips away an officer’s discretion.

If someone peeks through the window of another person’s house without possessing a deadly weapon or camera and the homeowner calls the police, Callaway offered as an example, the officers can give the person a ticket but can’t make an arrest.

“Oftentimes those crimes elevate to break-ins and to sexual assaults and other types of crime,” Callaway said.

However, advocates for criminal justice reform have supported the bill as another step towards decriminalizing minor offenses in order to change a system that they say has excessive penalties that disproportionately affect people of color and the poor.

HEALTH CARE

SB364: Medical providers must provide emergency birth control

Starting today, emergency medical providers are required to provide emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault if the patient requests it, including all doses of medication necessary to prevent pregnancy and any doses that must be self-administered after the patient leaves the medical center.

“By passing SB364 ... any person who finds themselves in this unenviable and horrible position of being in an emergency room, and being possibly impregnated and not wanting to be, they have the full backing of the law behind them to say, 'I'm entitled to an emergency contraceptive,’” Scheible, the bill’s sponsor, said during an April press conference in support of sexual assault survivors.

AB101: CBD for pets

This law authorizes licensed veterinarians to administer products containing CBD or hemp when treating an animal and to recommend such products to pet owners. It also prohibits the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners from disciplining veterinarians who administer or use such products.

During the session, veterinarians and animal advocates supported the measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), arguing that CBD products can help animals with anxiety, pain, cancer and arthritis.

INCLUSIVITY AND EQUITY

AB88: Bans offensive, racially discriminatory imagery in Nevada schools

This new law bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools and requires the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names to recommend changes to the name of any geographic feature or place that is racially discriminatory.

The legislation was introduced by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) amid calls from Native people for sports teams, businesses and schools to remove offensive names. Several Nevada entities have already responded to those requests — including UNLV, which retired its Hey Reb! Mascot, and the Squaw Valley Ski Resort, which recently rebranded as Palisades Tahoe and dropped “squaw” from its name after years of protest from the Washoe Tribe.

The bill also prohibits Nevada counties, cities and unincorporated towns from sounding sirens, bells or alarms historically used to alert people of color to leave town at a certain hour. In July, tribal leaders and the town of Minden announced an agreement to change the time of the town’s daily siren that many contend was once used as a warning for people of color to leave town by nightfall.

At a bill-signing event in June, Watts said the measure is meant to promote awareness about the injustices of the past in order to move forward. 

“That's really what Assembly Bill 88 tries to do is help educate people about some of the racially discriminatory aspects of our history, from our school mascots, to the names that we've given to places, places that were named first by Indigenous peoples, and then renamed when settlers arrived, and also addressing the issue of sundowner sirens,” he said at the time.

If local tribal leaders provide approval, Nevada schools may still use language, imagery or mascots in connection with tribes. For example, the Elko band of the Te-Moak Tribe allowed the Elko High School Indians mascot to remain the same. 

AB280: Requirements for inclusive single-stall restrooms

Starting today, this law requires that any single-stall restroom located in a public building and constructed from now on be designated as gender neutral and be as inclusive and accessible as possible.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), aims to make signage more inclusive by prohibiting the owner or operator of a place of public accommodation — which includes buildings accessible to the public, including restaurants, hotels and retail stores — from labeling a single-stall restroom with signage that indicates the restroom is for a specific gender. The legislation recommends signage of “All-Gender Bathroom” or “All-Accessible Bathroom.”

The measure additionally requires each county, city and any other governmental entity that adopts a building code to ensure that any public single-stall restrooms constructed on or after Oct. 1 are as inclusive and accessible as possible.

AB207: Expanding anti-discrimination protection laws online

This new law expands the definition of "place of public accommodation" to include the digital sphere in order to apply existing anti-discrimination laws affecting public places to e-commerce.

Specifically, the measure sponsored by Watts classifies any online business that offers goods or services to the general public in Nevada online, and is not operated from a physical establishment in the state, as a place of public accommodation.

During a hearing of the bill in May, David Brody, an attorney and head of the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, spoke about the importance of public accommodations laws in limiting racially discriminatory practices.

“Today, if a business posts a sign that says whites only, it should not matter whether it's written in ink or pixels. The discrimination is the same, the harm is the same,” Brody said. “Under Nevada law, the legal consequences should be the same.”

WORKFORCE

AB190: Workers can use sick leave to take care of ill family members

Under this new law, Nevada employers that offer sick leave to their employees must allow those employees to use a portion of their accumulated sick leave to attend to medical needs of their immediate family, whether that be for an illness, injury or doctor’s appointment. However, employers are allowed to limit the amount of sick leave a worker can use for that purpose.

The measure considers immediate family members to include a person’s child, foster child, spouse, domestic partner, sibling, parent, mother-in-law, father-in-law, grandchild, grandparent, stepparent and any person for whom the employee is the legal guardian.

The bill additionally includes a preamble stating that caregivers in Nevada provided 324 million hours of uncompensated care in 2013, at an estimated value of $4.27 billion.

Nevada employees working for employers with at least 50 employees are guaranteed to earn sick leave for each hour they spend on the job because of a law approved by lawmakers in 2019. Under that law, the minimum amount of leave for a person working 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year is about 40 hours of sick time.

SB293: Wage history private from employers

Starting today, this law bars employers from seeking out a job candidate’s wage or salary history, basing pay on a previous salary and retaliating against an applicant who does not provide their wage history.

The law still allows employers to ask an applicant about their salary expectation for the position for which the person is applying.

During the legislative session, bill sponsor Cannizzaro said the measure would help tackle the gender pay gap by directing employers to base pay on a worker’s experience and qualifications instead of a previous pay scale and ensuring that if a woman’s pay was lower than her male counterparts in her last job, it would not follow her to her next job and perpetuate a disparity.

LICENSE PLATES

AB123: Fee hike for Golden Knights license plates

Anyone interested in purchasing a special license plate from the DMV that shows support for the Vegas Golden Knights will have to pay an extra $10 fee for the issuance and renewals of the plate, in addition to the typical $35 issuance fee and $10 renewal fee.

The added fees will be distributed to the Vegas Golden Knights Foundation every three months to contribute to the organization’s mission of supporting the Las Vegas community and local nonprofits through partnerships, community programming and direct grants. A fiscal note from the DMV on this bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) estimates that the measure will bring in roughly $750,000 in revenue each year.

SB163: License plates for historically Black college fraternities and sororities

This new law, brought forward by Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas), requires the DMV to create and issue a new set of special license plates that indicate support for the Divine Nine, a group of historically Black collegiate fraternities and sororities.

Of the fees collected for these new special plates, 10 percent will go to the United Negro College Fund, which funds scholarships for Black students, and the remaining funds will be distributed equally among local chapters and organizations associated with the Divine Nine for the “promotion of community awareness and action through educational, economic and cultural service activities” in Nevada.

Counties and cities spent millions to lobby legislators in 2021, despite closure of Legislative Building

Even as the Legislative Building in Carson City remained closed to lobbyists for the majority of the 2021 session, counties, cities and local government agencies spent $2.8 million lobbying the Legislature this year, according to a report that also found local government lobbying expenditures hit their lowest total since 2005.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation in mid-July, is the product of a law requiring all local governments — from cities and counties to police departments and school districts — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.” 

The funds represent expenses for in-house as well as contracted lobbyists employed by local governments, whose duties included testifying on bills, arranging meetings with lawmakers and interest groups, tracking legislation and conducting research on issues.

The $2.8 million spent on lobbying activities in 2021 marked the first time since 2005 that spending dipped below $3 million, and represented roughly 72 percent of lobbying expenditures reported during the 2019 session.

The 2021 session kicked off in February closed to all but lawmakers, essential staff and members of the media, with all others — including registered lobbyists — participating virtually. Despite legal challenges, the Legislative Building did not open to lobbyists and members of the public until April 15, meaning the building was closed to lobbyists for 73 days of the 120-day session. Lobbyists were still able to meet with lawmakers via phone calls and video chats and in meetings outside of the Legislative Building.

Many local governments employed significantly fewer lobbyists compared to the 2019 session, when lobbying spending reached its highest total in more than a decade at $3.9 million.

For example, seven paid lobbyists worked for the City of Sparks during this year’s session compared to 14 two years ago. Amid that reduction, the Northern Nevada city spent $70,000 less on lobbying during the 2021 session compared to the 2019 session.

But for other agencies, lobbying spending remained high in 2021. After spending roughly $255,000 on lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session, the City of Henderson reported spending slightly more on lobbying expenses during the 2021 session.

Representatives of local governments, which in some cases manage budgets that rival the size of the multi-billion dollar state budget, say the lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns about allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may contradict the desires of the public — the reported lobbying expenditures from the Legislature in 2021 represent nearly $23,400 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

“It's political activity that the people who are being represented may or may not agree with, but they're paying for it regardless,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), said in an interview. 

Leading the way in spending were local governments in and around densely populated Las Vegas. Agencies based in Clark County, where 73 percent of the state’s population resides, accounted for 59 percent of spending on lobbying during the session. Local governments and political bodies in Washoe County accounted for 28 percent of lobbyist spending, even though the county is home to less than 16 percent of the state’s residents. 

Local governments across Carson City, Churchill County, Douglas County, Eureka County, Lander County, Lyon County, Nye County and Storey County — which are collectively home to roughly 8 percent of Nevadans — accounted for the remaining 12 percent spent to lobby Nevada lawmakers this year. Governments in the other seven counties did not report any lobbying expenditures.

Clark County governments

Clark County, which led all local governments in lobbying outlays ($352,000), spent roughly $162,000 less on lobbying compared to the Legislature in 2019 and employed almost half as many lobbyists. 

County spokesperson Erik Pappa wrote in an email that the county tracked hundreds of bills throughout the session, including a bill affecting short-term rental licensing (such as AirBnb or VRBO), because of the broad responsibilities of the county in implementing the requirements of new laws. That bill, AB363, was amended with language provided by Clark County late in the session, and the bill requires Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County to include short-term residential spaces in their legal definitions of “transient lodging” — meaning they are subject to the same taxes that hotels charge guests.

Pappa also noted that only two of the county’s four requested bills survived the 2021 legislative session: SB4 (clarified that the board of county commissioners may impose civil and criminal penalties for illegal possession of fireworks) and SB67 (created a pilot job program to gather data on job order contracts for certain public works projects). Counties, cities and school districts each are allotted a certain number of bill draft requests each legislative session depending on their population.

The City of Las Vegas spent roughly $335,000 on lobbying state lawmakers in 2021 (nearly $227,000 less than the city spent in the 2019 session). Though the city had 11 lobbyists registered with the Legislative Counsel Bureau during the 2021 session — two more than in the last regular session — city spokesperson Jace Radke wrote in an email that the city spent $181,000 for more than two dozen city staff across 19 departments to help work on bills during the session.

The city spent an additional $154,000 on contracts with lobbying firm The Ferraro Group for the entire year. Radke also noted that the city “engaged on 552 bills throughout the session” covering a laundry list of topics.

The City of Las Vegas — alongside multiple other local governments, including Washoe County and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) — testified in opposition to AB276 in March. The bill, which failed to pass out of committee, would have strengthened penalties for delaying or denying public records requests and aimed to increase transparency and compliance with the state’s public records law.

Schaus said the failed bill is a good example of the power imbalance that exists between local governments that have greater access to state lawmakers and citizens and activists who have to work harder to have their voices heard. Schaus pointed out that the transparency bill received support from groups with a diverse range of ideologies — including NPRI, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Press Association — but still failed in the face of opposition from local governments.

“There are going to be instances where governments’ interests don't align with the citizen activists who might be trying to push reforms,” Schaus said. “And that government lobbying can potentially be big problems for folks who are trying to change the status quo.”

Clark County School District also significantly cut back on its lobbying efforts during the 2021 session. After spending nearly $280,000 and employing 13 people to lobby state lawmakers two years ago, the state’s largest school district spent only $45,000 on lobbying efforts and used two paid and one unpaid lobbyist in the 2021 legislative session.

During the session, Brad Keating, an in-house lobbyist for the district, testified in support of SB450. The bill, which passed out of both houses, extends schools districts’ authority to issue general obligation bonds without voter approval to aid facility modernization projects.

Despite less lobbying spending, the district issued a press release in June stating that the 2021 session “signaled a momentous shift for education” in Nevada and highlighted AB495, which allocates roughly $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars.

Even as overall lobbying spending declined amid the extended closure of the Legislative Building, some local governments in Southern Nevada allocated dollar amounts on par with past years.

For the second straight session, the City of Henderson spent roughly $255,000 on lobbying, including contract expenses with The Perkins Company, a firm run by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins. City spokesperson Kathleen Richards wrote in an email that “Henderson is the largest full-service city” in the state — providing roughly 330,000 residents with standalone police, court, water and other services, unlike other jurisdictions that share resources with Clark County — and that the city tracked “nearly 500 bills'' throughout the session with a potential effect on city operations.

The City of Henderson — which was allowed two bill draft requests during the session — sponsored AB42, which authorized municipalities throughout the state to conduct jury trials for crimes involving battery domestic violence. Richards noted that other priority legislation tracked by the city included two bills that passed out of both houses: AB63, which ensures local government can access certain stabilization funds during any emergency, and SB138, which requires local governments to enact ordinances to conduct planned unit development.

Metro also maintained similar lobbying spending levels across the past two sessions. The agency spent roughly $184,000 at the Legislature in 2019 and nearly $182,000 at the Legislature in 2021, while maintaining a small team of lobbyists that prominently featured in-house lobbyist Chuck Callaway. 

Callaway testified on a wide range of bills throughout the session, including AB440 — a bill that will require police officers to simply issue citations for misdemeanors that do not constitute repeat offenses or violent crimes, rather than allowing officers to decide between detaining the offender and issuing a citation.

In June, Callaway told The Nevada Independent that he was “adamantly opposed to this bill the entire legislative session” because it strips away a police officer’s discretion. The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, with all Republican lawmakers opposed.

Washoe County governments

Though Clark County topped the spending list for the 2021 session, the county government in Washoe — which is home to roughly 1.8 million fewer people than Clark County — spent just $11,000 less than the county government in Clark.

Washoe County spent roughly $341,000 on lobbying the Legislature in 2021 ($40,000 less compared to 2019). Those costs account for lobbyists who worked on behalf of the general county government and the Washoe County Health District, and include nearly $259,000 for employee salaries and nearly $76,000 for contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca and Argentum Partners). 

The county and health district collectively employed five lobbyists during the session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records — down from the seven lobbyists employed two years ago.

County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale noted that Washoe County tracked 600 bills throughout the session, three-fourths of which the county actively worked on.

Meanwhile, large city governments in Washoe County spent significantly less money on lobbying lawmakers in 2021 than they did two years prior. The City of Reno cut lobbying spending by more than $45,000 from the 2019 session, and the City of Sparks cut lobbying spending by $71,000 from the 2019 session.

Rural governments

Some smaller local governments also continued to spend thousands of dollars at the 2021 Legislature.

Churchill County spent nearly $45,000 to lobby lawmakers this year — roughly $2,500 more than the county spent in the 2019 legislative session. The county had eight outside lobbyists registered during the 2021 session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records; all worked at the firm Strategies 360. The county’s seat, the City of Fallon, spent $44,000 on lobbying.

And while several rural county governments completely cut spending — Storey County and White Pine County did not report lobbying expenditures in 2021, after reporting spending $17,000 and $14,000 respectively in 2019 — others kicked up spending. Lander County, for example, reported spending $40,000 on lobbying at the Legislature in 2021, after reporting no lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session. 

Even as spending dropped across the board during the 2021 session, Schaus said those expenses should be “extraordinarily lower” than they are.

“In today's day and age, with the technology that we have … it does not take very much for a local government to get in contact with a lawmaker and say, ‘Hey, here's some of our interests for this session,’” Schaus said. “And that’s stuff that's already taking place, even before you take into account the official lobbying costs of sending somebody off to Carson City.”

Michael Schaus is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent.

Strict deadlines for deciding on freedom are latest big change in Nevada’s bail landscape

At a hearing this spring, activist Jagada Chambers described jail as “a dungeon” where every moment is trauma-filled.

It’s why he and others pushed lawmakers to put a strict cap on how long courts have to give a defendant an initial bail hearing that could mean the difference between spending a few hours in jail, or several days, without being convicted of a crime.

Legislators ultimately passed AB424, a measure that requires that a pretrial release hearing happen within 48 hours — drawing cheers from supporters who want to ensure that people are not kept behind bars for long periods of time simply because they don’t have as much money as other defendants to bail out sooner.

“We have to take into consideration the people that we're talking about here are innocent,” said Chambers, who has worked on voter rights restoration and other issues affecting formerly incarcerated people. “You should make any effort to take appropriate channels to get that handled within an hour because a person in that [dungeon] — it’s irreparable damage.”

The measure, which goes into effect next July, comes after a decades-long push in Nevada and nationwide to end or curtail the practice of using money to broker release from jail. Those efforts have largely hit dead ends in the Legislature — until a landmark decision from the Nevada Supreme Court last year helped force lawmakers’ hands by setting significant requirements for judges who want to use money as collateral for release.

“You put a bunch of cracks in the ceiling and eventually you break through,” said Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), who presented the bill in the Senate along with Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas). “This was that session for bail reform.”

Critics of the status quo say using money in exchange for freedom means people are often kept behind bars longer because they are poor, rather than because they pose an actual risk to public safety. Lawmakers drew a contrast between indigent clients unable to bail out and a case involving multibillionaire Henry Nicholas, who was released without bail as he faced charges of felony drug trafficking stemming from an arrest in Las Vegas.

Even a  short jail stint can disrupt a defendant’s job and family life, making it harder to get back on their feet and return to being a productive member of the community. And bill supporters chafe that drawn-out, pretrial detention is happening to people who are presumed innocent.

“$5,000 — for some people that is insurmountable and just amounts to detention. For others, it's absolutely nothing, and that has zero to do with how dangerous the person is to the community,” Harris told The Nevada Independent. “And that is not the goal of our system at all.”

The pivotal ruling came in April 2020 in the case of Jose Valdez-Jimenez, who was assessed $40,000 bail that he could not pay after police arrested him for stealing thousands of dollars of Victoria’s Secret merchandise in Las Vegas. Among other things, the Supreme Court’s order required defendants get an individualized and adversarial court hearing — one that can involve cross-examining witnesses — promptly after their arrest to consider whether they should remain behind bars.  

But how to define “prompt” had been an open question in the year after the court ruling, subject to a wide range of opinions and questions about what can be reasonably expected from smaller jurisdictions. Lawmakers ultimately put parameters on the matter through AB424, which passed 30-12 in the Assembly and 17-4 in the Senate (several Republicans joined Democrats to support the measure).

“Having this standard across the state of, ‘you have to have a bail hearing within 48 hours,’ I think will make a huge difference,” said Washoe County Deputy Public Defender Kendra Bertschy. “How they're being treated really depends on what side of the street they're arrested on. And that's really concerning with the level of justice, and the equal justice that you're given, really depends on what court you end up in front of.”

The outcome hasn’t satisfied advocates who want complete abolition of money-based bail. They expect Nevada will still need private funds supported by donors that bail people out and help them get on with their lives before the 48-hour clock runs out.

“I think they took safe steps this year ... I think they did what was not going to ruffle too many feathers,” said Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project and the Vegas Freedom Fund, which bails people out of jail and offers a wide range of support services to address other needs in their life upon release.

Holly Welborn, policy director at the ACLU of Nevada, described the law as an improvement but not a total transformation.

“We have at least met the floor of what's constitutionally permissible in the bail system in state statute,” she said. “But we haven't really embraced ending the system of wealth-based detention.”

But prosecutors, police and judges — especially ones in rural jurisdictions with smaller staffs — argue the hard deadline goes too far and is “unworkable.”

“It's an unfunded mandate,” said Jennifer Noble of the Nevada District Attorneys Association. “And it's not something where we object to the principle of it ... it's just that we need resources and funding and more people, frankly, because it's not just attorneys that are in this process.”

Others have criticized the bill as going too far in the effort to ease up on a “tough on crime” mentality that prevailed in the 1990s and beyond. Chuck Callaway of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said he worries about crimes rates going up when he sees statistics about people cycling quickly out of jail, and he senses in some of the Legislature’s recent work “an attitude of not holding criminals accountable for their actions.”

A bail bondsman arrives at the bail window at the Las Vegas Detention Center on July 29, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

How bail works

The commercial bail bonds industry as it exists in the United States has been around since the late 1800s. After a person is arrested, a monetary amount is assigned based on the charges they face, often in line with the guidelines of a standard bail schedule, and loved ones can pay the money in full to get them out. The exception is for very serious charges such as murder, when defendants are constitutionally barred from bailing out. 

That money will be reimbursed if the person shows up to court to face the charges. In situations where loved ones do not have sufficient cash to make bail, they can enlist a bail bonds company to make the payment, but state law allows the bail company to keep 15 percent of the payment as a nonrefundable fee for its services — even if the person makes all of their court dates.

People being held in jail because they await trial — and who are considered innocent because they have yet to be convicted — make up a large portion of the Clark County Detention Center’s population. The jail, which averages about 3,700 people a day, reported 2,779 defendants were staying there on a pre-trial basis in December 2019, as opposed to serving out a sentence after a conviction.

About 85 percent of people the jail was holding pre-trial were accused of a felony, with the rest facing lesser charges. But there were signs that inability to pay bail was holding back people accused of low-level offenses — in December 2019, the jail reported having 44 people in custody for more than seven days on bail amounts less than $2,500.

Activists attempted to change the law most recently in 2019, when they came together to research what other states were doing and introduced AB325 — a bill that would have factored in a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail. The measure, sponsored by then-Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo (D-Las Vegas) and other Democrats, faced strident opposition before it was killed, and lawmakers instead advanced a resolution calling for an interim study on pre-trial issues

“We wrote that bill, and it was ... killed,” Turner said. “But then everything that the Nevada Supreme Court ruling in Valdez-Jimenez stated, was literally everything that was in that original bill, AB325.” 

In Valdez-Jimenez, justices ruled that Nevada bail law was unconstitutional because it did not require the court to consider terms of release that were less restrictive than incarceration before determining that cash bail should be imposed.

It also shifted the burden of proof. Prior to April 2020, the law required the defendant to make a “showing of good cause” about why they should be released. In the ruling, justices flipped that standard and ruled that it was the state’s responsibility to prove — through “clear and convincing evidence” — that bail was necessary to ensure a person’s appearance in court or public safety. 

Advocates support alternatives to cash as ways to ensure someone’s court appearance, including drug testing, GPS monitoring, court date reminder calls, substance abuse rehabilitation and check-ins.

If judges conclude bail is needed, they have to document “findings of fact” about why they came to that conclusion. Harris has framed the new paradigm as a win for civil libertarians.

“This issue is an opportunity for me to proudly wear the conservative label,” Harris, who chaired an interim committee on bail, said when she presented AB424 to fellow lawmakers. “I see this as a question of how long the government can hold you, deprive you of your liberty, prior to making any argument about why that liberty should be deprived.”

State Senator Dallas Harris on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Overextending staff

The bill faced fierce pushback from prosecutors and rural judges, who argued that they could drive members of their small staffs to burnout if they needed to maintain availability through the weekends. Keith Lee, a lobbyist for the Nevada Judges of Limited Jurisdiction, also questioned bill proponents’ arguments that some defendants were waiting up to 12 days for a bail hearing.

“I have no way to know whether those are correct or not. I assume they're correct. I would respectfully suggest to you that they are one-offs, however,” he told lawmakers. “And I certainly want to dispel any implication that the reason there was so many hours taken is a result of the judge’s failure to act.”

Some bill opponents asked that the deadline for a hearing be extended to at least 48 judicial hours — meaning the clock would stop for nights and weekends — on the basis that a literal 48-hour timeline prevents even defense attorneys from preparing their case to get their client out. 

Noble, representing prosecutors, said lawmakers needed to consider all the support staff needed to prepare for the kind of robust hearing envisioned in the Valdez-Jimenez ruling. That includes investigative staff to pull criminal histories from an FBI database, staff to obtain information from law enforcement and staff in the pretrial services department to prepare risk assessments (an evaluation of how likely a defendant is to skip court or commit another crime).

“It is not as simple as just providing prosecutors to staff these hearings on the weekend,” she said. 

Judge Stephen Bishop of White Pine County called the 48-hour drop-dead timeline an “overcorrection.”

“It's going to be setting my court up for failure, my attorneys that for failure, and even the defendants up for failure,” he said during a hearing on the bill.

Some proponents said the cost concerns did not outweigh constitutional rights.

“What I'm hearing is that upholding our civil liberties is too expensive,” said Las Vegas resident Joseph Lankowski, who testified to lawmakers while he was out of jail on bail. “Where are we going to find the money to give our citizens their constitutional rights? And that's just not a viable excuse for me.”

In an interview, Harris acknowledged the new requirement could be a challenge, but she said she hoped it would push jurisdictions that have underfunded correctional facilities and services for people who cannot afford a lawyer to direct federal American Rescue Plan dollars to the cause.

“I think the courts are going to have to stretch a little bit, and get creative in order to be able to meet this new 48 hour requirement,” she said. “I’m hoping that the statutory requirement will give them a little bit of motivation to invest in that area.”

The bail window at the Las Vegas Detention Center as seen late Thursday night, July 29, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Work left undone

The Legislature’s moves this session fell short of doing away with cash bail. Proponents had hoped to get rid of the bail schedule entirely when they thought they might have the timeline reduced to 24 hours — that would make it unnecessary because incarcerated people would know they will see a judge within a day and could likely avoid missing much work because they are behind bars.

“We could eliminate bail, if we went to the 24 hours, and then it wouldn't be a wealth-based system,” said Clark County Chief Deputy Public Defender John Piro, who noted many people bail out within the first 12-24 hours. “But because we're not there, we're gonna have to keep some amount of bail so that people can bail out if they get ahead.”

The issue is also complicated because the Nevada Constitution explicitly says “all persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties” except in certain murder cases. Eliminating cash bail would likely mean embarking on the multi-year process of removing it from the Constitution; Harris said she wasn’t aware that anyone is launching such a project.

The bill wasn’t the only one to come out of the work of a committee that spent the legislative interim exploring Nevada’s pre-trial release system. One bill that made it into law, AB440, requires officers to give people a citation instead of something stronger for their first nonviolent misdemeanor offense. 

The committee did also send a letter to court administrators, asking them to re-validate a pretrial risk assessment form. In interim meetings, several speakers argued the tool perpetuated racial biases because it predicts future conduct on statistics such as previous arrests among people of certain races.

Another bill, SB401 proposed collecting detailed information about the number, reason and bail amounts of people being held in jail before trial, and reporting that data to a statewide court administrator. It died over concerns about the costs of implementation.

If football is the analogy, Harris said, the Legislature didn’t quite score a touchdown on bail issues, but got within goal range. Keeping cash bail, but requiring a hearing within 48 hours, allows people who can get out earlier the option of doing so because they can pay, without letting those who can’t remain in jail for too long.

“Forty-eight hours I think is where we could kind of push our system right now to be a bit better,” Harris said.

Turner said she hasn’t seen much of a difference in bail practices in the year since the Supreme Court's ruling, based on calls she receives from people seeking help through the Freedom Fund, although she is noticing that bail amounts have been lower than they previously were. She’s also heard people say they aren’t getting the Valdez-Jimenez hearings they are entitled to — a trend that attorneys said they noticed in the wake of the decision.

She wants to make sure courts are complying with the ruling and stricter timelines. But she’s also got her eye on bigger goals than just successful implementation, including getting law students involved in helping craft future policies that take bold steps in changing the criminal justice system.

“I think I'm reimagining what pretrial detention is, and what it actually means for public safety,” Turner said. “Figuring out how we can write new policy and write and create new systems that reflect the world that we all want to live in.”

After decriminalization of traffic offenses, jaywalking, advocates push to reform vast misdemeanor system

In the wake of Nevada lawmakers decriminalizing minor traffic offenses and jaywalking, criminal justice reform advocates have set their sights on a new goal — downgrading other misdemeanors to civil infractions and addressing consequences associated with the misdemeanor system.

Misdemeanors are considered the lowest-level crimes, behind felonies and gross misdemeanors, and can result in an individual being sentenced to up to six months in jail, fined up to $1,000, or both — for anything ranging from feeding pigeons to domestic violence battery. While some misdemeanors such as provoking assault have lesser fines that are enumerated in state law, the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that police may arrest and jail individuals for any misdemeanor even without a warrant. 

Advocates have drawn parallels between misdemeanors and racist practices dating back to Reconstruction – a turbulent era of the reintegration of the Confederate states into the United States and formerly enslaved people into society after the Civil War –  and said lawmakers and officials need to reevaluate what is considered a misdemeanor

“We need to start thinking about how we think about misdemeanors,” said Leisa Moseley, Nevada state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “The purpose of this misdemeanor system, how much revenue it generates, how it catches people up in the system, and why are we even … allowed to arrest people for such what we consider minor infractions.”

Changing misdemeanors to civil infractions would mean police officers would issue citations rather than attempting to arrest people and get them in a police car. Eve Hanan, a professor at the UNLV Boyd School of Law who runs the UNLV misdemeanor clinic that represents people charged with low-level offenses, said doing so would likely reduce sometimes-deadly encounters between people and the police.

Hanan said she believes that had George Floyd been given a citation rather than getting arrested, he might still be alive. 

“It was really the decision to put him into the back of the police car that was the start of the chain of events which led to his killing,” Hanan said.

Efforts to scale back the potential consequences of misdemeanors this session faced pushback from critics who say that doing so takes away police officers’ discretion to arrest people as necessary.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department policy prevents officers from making minor misdemeanor arrests unless they are approved by a supervisor, said Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Callaway said he “adamantly opposed” AB440 – a bill advanced this year that will require police officers to issue citations for certain misdemeanors that do not constitute repeat offenses, violent crimes “or certain other prohibited offenses under certain circumstances.” 

If someone peeks through the window of another person’s house without possessing a deadly weapon or camera and the homeowner calls the police, Callaway offered as an example, the officers can give the person a ticket but can’t make an arrest.

“Oftentimes those crimes elevate to break-ins and to sexual assaults and other types of crime,” said Callaway. “If the bill passed in its original form, basically a citizen would have more police power than a police officer because a citizen under our law can make a citizen’s arrest.”

Yet, advocates continue to push for the decriminalization of minor offenses. One individual was held in custody for 72 hours for feeding pigeons – a misdemeanor charged under the Henderson Municipal Court.

The conversation about rethinking misdemeanors is already under way in Nevada. The Clark County Black Caucus — which has been leading conversations on reforms in Nevada for over a decade — organized a panel discussion and screening hosted at the Mob Museum early this month of a documentary short film about the history of the misdemeanor system and its long-lasting and disproportionate harms on Black, brown and low-income people in the United States.  

The film, Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem, points to similarities between Black codes in the 19th century – restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African-Americans and to ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished – and modern-day misdemeanors. 

Black codes attached big penalties to minor or made-up offenses – such as being drunk in public, walking alongside the railroad tracks and being homeless – and were almost exclusively enforced against African-American people, Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor and author of Chokehold, says in the film.

During the Reconstruction era, many newly freed enslaved people were able to make significant achievements “that really threatened white supremacy,” Irene Joe, a University of California Davis law professor and co-author of When Every Sentence Is A Possible Death Sentence, said in the film. 

Others in the film argue governments created Black codes to earn a profit and to create a steady source of cheap or free labor after the abolition of slavery. 

“For these governments to sell prisoners into slavery, you first have to arrest lots of people,” Douglas Blackmon, Georgia State University Professor and author of Slavery By Another Name, said in the film. “There’s a big problem with that, though. There’s just not enough crime for this system to work and for it to be profitable. The state governments of the South had to invent new crimes.”

The film compared the historical example of John Owen, a Black man who was sentenced under the Black codes to perform convict labor for two years taking six ears of corn and a third year for the court costs with the modern-day example of Faylita Hicks, who spent 45 days in jail for using a bounced check for $25 worth of food during a period of homelessness in 2010.

“It hurt me for 10 years, and it completely disrupted my life, and I have been trying to figure out how to get my life back on track,” Hicks said in the film. 

A treadmill of fines and fees 

The Legislature took a major step this year to take certain misdemeanors off the book with AB116, a bill which allows minor traffic offenses to be charged as civil infractions rather than crimes. Once the bill takes full effect in 2023, people cannot be arrested for certain low-level offenses, or for missing payment of a fine or failing to appear in court for such a citation. 

But the bill does not prevent those fines, nor the slew of fees that may come with them, from accumulating and putting people unable to pay them into debt. Those expenses include court costs, administrative assessment fees, cash bail deposit, and more.

One woman who moved from Chicago to Las Vegas in 2006 received $4,431 in ticket fines that were raised to more than $20,000 with additional fines and fees, according to data analyzed by the UNLV Misdemeanor Clinic that recently helped her. Such fines and fees can have long-lasting consequences.

“It takes away people’s livelihood[s]. It limits who can get employment in many cases,” Moseley said. “If you got a misdemeanor conviction, you have to report that if you’re trying to get into law school, if you’re trying to get into medical school.” 

Advocates hope to tackle some of the pitfalls people face as they try to respond to a misdemeanor charge.

In 2019, Nevada lawmakers passed AB434 – a bill that required courts to perform ability-to-pay assessments and to offer community service or a payment plan for those unable to pay a traffic fine. But it is unclear whether such assessments are being applied uniformly across the state and whether people are consistently being offered the opportunity to perform community service if they are unable to pay, Moseley told lawmakers earlier this year. 

Individuals who say they cannot pay fines and fees associated with misdemeanors are required to appear in court so a judge can determine whether they are truly unable to pay or whether they purposefully did not pay.

All too often, people who cannot pay fines and fees try to stay away from the court until they have the money to pay, Hanan said. But, if they miss the payment due date, a warrant goes out for their arrest and they can be incarcerated until they go before a judge to argue that they were unable to pay, Hanan added.

“You’ll eventually get released but, you know, it only takes a day or two to lose your job and to have your children in [a] situation you don’t want to be in,” Hanan said. 

And sometimes people are unable to commit to community service or to making payments according to a court-ordered payment plan, which comes with an additional fee just to enroll and that can range from $50 to $150, according to Moseley. 

That was the case for Leslie Turner, head of the Mass Liberation Project criminal justice reform initiative. She owed fines for traffic tickets in 2015, but was unable to perform the manual labor community service options available to her because she was pregnant. After giving birth to a premature baby boy, she had to stop working and was unable to make the payments on her plan.

Nguyen and Moseley are working together to pass a bill for the next legislative session that would make the definition of community service more flexible. Texas, for example, allows people to choose from a wide range of community service options including volunteering at a nonprofit organization or at a school.

Individuals are charged fees if they miss a payment or submit a late payment, which can add up. Under Nevada law, a person can spend time in jail instead of paying fines and fees. One day in jail counts for $150. 

“If they just simply cannot pay, for non-willful failure to pay, there are many people out there who have elected to spend several days to a week or more in jail in order to eliminate, to be done with the fines and fees that they owe to the court,” Hanan said. 

Some people get trapped in the system of accumulating debt from unpaid fines and fees associated with misdemeanors because they do not understand the intricacies of the legal system. 

Individuals who are unable to pay for an attorney are entitled to a public defender, but there is a caveat: To qualify, they must be facing jail time. If the prosecutor is not seeking jail time, the judge will charge the individual fines and fees, and the individual is expected to pay or negotiate those fines and fees on their own.

The UNLV Misdemeanor Clinic that Hanan runs with law Professor Anne Traum represents clients who are struggling with debt from criminal justice fines and fees but are not eligible for a public defender — free of charge. 

Nguyen said she is working on clarifying in Nevada law all the fines and fees imposed for civil infractions. 

Much of the revenue from these fines and fees goes to fund local courts. But money collected for fees such as administrative assessment fees – additional costs assessed against each defendant and that are enumerated in Nevada law – are used to fund specialty courts such as DUI courts, drug courts and youth offender courts. 

Advocates have criticized local governments’ reliance on criminal justice fines and fees. Although data on where fines and fees associated with misdemeanors go in Nevada is limited, the Fines and Fees Justice Center released a report showing that Nevada has consistently raised administrative assessment funds over the past two decades. 

In 1987, the Legislature raised administrative assessment funds from $10 to $100 to fund an expansion and upgrade of technology. The fee first was introduced in 1983 when Congress cut approximately $40 billion from its budget, causing states to scramble for alternative ways to fund their justice systems. 

Building consensus

Nguyen is optimistic about implementing more legislation to decriminalize more misdemeanors. Because AB116 requires courts in Nevada to create a civil infractions system, they will already have a system in place to address misdemeanors that lawmakers change to civil infractions.

Nguyen attributes this year’s passage of AB116 – after four unsuccessful attempts to decriminalize minor traffic offenses – to her conversations with people working in the criminal justice system such as members of the courts and police officers. 

“Sometimes, you think that you’re in opposition to them and it turns out, you actually want the same thing,” Nguyen said. 

She said she spoke with district attorneys who have historically been in opposition to the measure, asked them what she could do to get them on board, had them speak to Moseley and provided them with evidence of its success in other states. She said she plans to do the same when it comes time to discuss decriminalizing more misdemeanors. 

“I think that helps bring people in to realize …. this change is not so scary. It’s needed. It’s necessary and it’ll actually make things better for you,” Nguyen said. 

Reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 to reflect that the film screening was organized by the Clark County Black Caucus. 

Despite changes, Las Vegas police argue traffic stop data collection bill would cost millions

A group of recently graduated police officer sits on stage.

A bill 18 years in the making would require state law enforcement agencies to collect and analyze traffic stop data, but Las Vegas police say the measure would cost them millions of dollars. 

The Senate Finance Committee on Monday heard Sen. Dallas Harris’ (D-Las Vegas) bill SB236, which would also establish an early warning system for finding police officers who display “bias indicators,” a concept that first came up during the 2003 legislative session.  

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) at first indicated that the bill would cost the agency an estimated $22.6 million for the biennium to implement, but Harris said the agency informally, through emails, had submitted an updated fiscal note that would bring down that amount to about $7 million after the bill was amended to only include traffic stops, not all kinds of stops. All other police agencies that had submitted fiscal notes on the bill withdrew them after the amendment was adopted.

Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist with LVMPD, said that the agency supports the policy behind the bill and that it understands the importance of gathering data. LVMPD’s fiscal note only shows the cost of officers potentially working overtime as a result of filling out the required forms to input the data after traffic stops. Callaway said the agency expects the data input to average 15 minutes per stop which would result in 314,695 work hours per year.

LVMPD is not suggesting hiring new officers to make up the difference in time or coverage. Callaway said that LVMPD’s chief financial officer estimated that if the bill was passed, the agency would need to hire 43 officers at a cost of $5 million to maintain current staffing ratios.

“Everything that an officer is doing, we have a limited time during the day, and our main focus is handling calls for service, reducing crime, when people call the police they expect an officer to respond in a timely manner,” he said. “And if an officer is taken an extra 15 minutes on a car stop to fill out a data card...that makes our response time longer, and decreases an officer's ability to engage in other proactive activity.”

But Harris said she does not believe the amount of time it would take the officer to fill out the data would affect the job and the time to do other tasks or respond to calls of service. 

“It could be a minute where they were in rest, waiting to catch someone, that is that additional minute that they're taking. It's not necessarily going to have to take away from them doing something else,” she said. 

Harris also said she has gone “through pains” to work with the Department of Public Safety, which oversees agencies such as the Nevada Highway Patrol, to ensure the traffic stop data collection system could be at the state level so each police jurisdiction would not have to create its own system and the data could be centralized.

The committee did not vote on the measure during the meeting.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Former DETR head opens up about the threats she received during hearing on anti-doxxing bill

Heather Korbulic helmed the state’s Department Employment, Training and Rehabilitation during some of the pandemic’s darkest days last spring.

Thousands of Nevadans, who were thrust essentially overnight onto the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system as Nevada shuttered its economy in the early days of the pandemic, called Korbulic directly, desperate for relief as they struggled to navigate the claims system. Those Nevadans, she said, shared “equally compelling stories of desperation and fear.”

A small percentage, however, targeted their frustrations directly at Korbulic, and an even smaller percentage of those decided to “harass or threaten” her “with, at the very least, intent to scare” her, Korbulic told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday during a hearing on AB296, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) that would create civil penalties for people who post people’s personal identifying or sensitive information online with the intent that that information be used for an unlawful purpose, otherwise known as doxxing. 

It was the first time Korbulic — who left DETR in June — has spoken publicly about the personal toll of the threats she received.

“I'm here today doing something I didn't want to do because I really believe in what Assemblywoman Nguyen is putting forward in Assembly Bill 296,” Korbulic said. “No one under any circumstance should be made to feel the way that my family and I felt when people were using my personally identifiable information to threaten and harass me.”

The bill would hold people liable for sharing such information if it causes death, bodily injury, stalking or mental anguish of the person or a close relation of the person whose information was shared, or would cause a “reasonable person” to feel mental anguish or fear any those consequences.

After the first legitimate threat to Korbulic’s safety, a law enforcement officer spent the night parked in front of her house while her husband and children were out of town. When neighbors asked her what was happening, she told them about the threat and asked them to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity.

“I went inside and I called my husband and I sobbed and I told him I was done because I couldn’t live like this,” Korbulic testified through tears. “He told me that I was stronger than the people who were threatening me and that he would cut short his trip and come home and install a security system.”

When her family came home, the kids were banned from playing in the front yard unsupervised because Korbulic was afraid that someone would kidnap them. The fear, she said, confused her children, who were angry with her over the new rule.

A few weeks later, in the middle of a meeting with lawmakers, someone posted Korbulic’s personal cell phone number on Facebook. She said that within a matter of minutes, she had more than 100 calls, and her voicemail box filled up with “hateful messages.” The calls were coming in so quickly she couldn’t even get through to Verizon to change her number.

“I sat down and I wept at my desk and I decided that I could no longer tolerate putting my family in this position and that I could not and would not live in fear for simply trying to do my job,” Korbulic said.

In June, Korbulic stepped down from the position, over what was described at the time generally as “threats to her personal safety” and returned to her previous job as executive director of the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange. She is currently serving as a policy advisor to Gov. Steve Sisolak.

During the Monday hearing, there was some discussion over a section of the bill exempting the sharing of information “which depicts a law enforcement officer acting under the color of law or a public officer acting in an official capacity” from punishment. Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) voiced a concern that the language would mean the people who threatened Korbulic would not be subject to penalties under the bill, and that the legislation could even invite people to dox police officers.

Lobbyists for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association testified against the bill for that very reason, arguing that it unnecessarily exempts officers from protection. (Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway also suggested that criminal penalties for doxxing, which were included in an earlier draft of the bill but were amended out, be left in.)

Bill proponents and legislative counsel, however, clarified that the bill would apply to a public official or police officer who is at home, after hours and being harassed. Legal counsel added that existing law currently prohibits the sharing of law enforcement officers’ home addresses or personal information that is confidential by statute.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Assembly committee advances bill to limit police collaboration with immigration enforcement officials

Clark County Detention Center

A legislative committee voted on party lines Wednesday to limit local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities after hearing stories of families affected by deportations, including a 13-year-old boy who became suicidal during his father’s monthslong stay in immigration detention.

The Assembly Government Affairs Committee voted 8-5 to advance AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), which — among other things — bars law enforcement from detaining a person at the request of immigration authorities unless there is a warrant for that person and requires police to warn people that their answers to questions about their birthplace could be used against them in deportation proceedings.

“Federal government agencies should not be allowed to commandeer our state's scarce public safety resources,” Torres said. “Studies also show that misuse of local resources for federal immigration enforcement has a negative effect on reporting for both victims and witnesses of crime.”

The bill, which also declares that it is not the primary purpose of local law enforcement to enforce civil federal immigration law, is part of a long struggle between immigrant advocates and police agencies over practices such as jails holding inmates longer than they otherwise would in order to give immigration officials a chance to take custody of them. 

While some agencies have dropped formal 287(g) partnerships with the federal government, activists say less-formal collaboration still happens and can turn arrests for minor infractions into life-altering, family-splitting deportations.

That’s what Jennifer Antonio testified happened to her husband, an undocumented immigrant, in August 2019. She said her then-11-year-old son Ethan has ADHD and tried to run away during a behavioral episode; when her husband grabbed the boy’s jacket to stop him, someone called the police and both the boy and her husband were arrested.

The boy was released to his mother shortly after, but Antonio’s husband was detained for nine months and authorities said she could not bail him out because he was on an immigration hold. With less supervision, Ethan started acting out, becoming depressed and even attempting suicide.

“My father got out of immigration three days before my birthday, and that was the best present that I could have ever had,” Ethan testified. “Now he is home, and I feel better, but we still live in fear that they will come for my father. Please stop taking people from their families. It’s not right.”

Opponents, however, questioned whether the bill would prevent authorities from catching dangerous criminals who have violated immigration laws. Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite) pointed to a news article about the arrest of two Yemeni men apprehended by the Border Patrol who had been on a terror watch list and asked if the bill would prevent local police from helping bring them into custody. 

“There's nothing preventing ICE from doing their job,” Torres replied. “Additionally, in the legislation it's abundantly clear that if there is a federal warrant, they can still detain those individuals and they would be transferred into ICE custody.”

The bill would bar state and local law enforcement from using agency money or personnel to investigate, question or arrest people for immigration enforcement purposes, and specifies that police should not detain someone solely for the purpose of determining their immigration status. It also bars local agencies from allowing federal immigration officials to question inmates in local custody about noncriminal matters unless the interview is voluntary or backed by a court order.

Police agencies opposed the bill, raising a litany of issues with the language. Chuck Callaway, lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said that asking arrestees about their birthplace is legitimate because police have to notify certain countries such as China and Saudi Arabia when their citizens are arrested. 

He said the measure also would prevent jail personnel from answering questions from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about when an inmate was going to be released if federal authorities wanted to detain someone exiting the jail. Eric Spratley of the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association added that the Miranda rights-style disclosure the bill requires to alert inmates that any answers they provide could be used for immigration enforcement will make inmates distrustful. 

“It will make people we are coming in contact with feel like we are now partnered for immigration purposes, and further widen this racial divide that law enforcement is actively trying to repair,” he said.

Members of the public opposing the bill said it would give Nevada a reputation as a “sanctuary state” that could repel tourists and invite crime.

“Bills like AB376 invite people to break our laws at the expense of our most vulnerable Nevada citizens,” Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald said in written comments. “The United States of America is a land of laws and we ask that this committee respect our country enough to abide by the existing laws already in place.”

But supporters argued that striking a clearer divide between local police and federal immigration enforcement officers would build trust and create a safer community. Liz Ortenburger, CEO of the nonprofit Safe Nest dedicated to victims of domestic violence, said fear of deportation prevents victims from calling the police or seeking a restraining order.

“We also see in the eyes of many of our victims the fear of being deported and taken away from their children, and leaving their children unsupervised at the hands of a batterer,” she said. “All of this creates more abuse, more cycles, more traumatized children, and more generational violence in our community.”

Education advocates testified that the bill could ease anxiety among children with undocumented parents and help them focus on school. The bill specifically prevents school police from inquiring about or collecting information about a person’s immigration status or birthplace.

Sylvia Lazos, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, noted that close to half of the students in the Clark County School District have one or more immigrant parents, and some of those are undocumented.

“When a parent is deported, the children who are left behind are traumatized, not knowing why their parents abandoned them, fearful that no one will take care for them,” she wrote. “Exactly what is the Southern Nevada community gaining from such policies?” 

A less controversial element of the bill, which was dubbed the Keep Nevada Working Act, establishes a task force affiliated with the lieutenant governor’s office and the Office for New Americans that would explore ways to attract and retain immigrant-owned businesses. The group would conduct research and submit recommendations to the Legislature about developing small businesses and maintaining stability in the agricultural workforce, which is made up predominantly of immigrants.  

“Creating the task force will assist our state in continuing to attract and retain a talented workforce, including entrepreneurs and small businesses, to create jobs and prosperity,” said Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, a Democrat.

The hearing and vote were the first steps for the bill, which now heads to the Assembly for a possible vote.

Tracking traffic stop data, ‘bias indicators’ for officers lauded by criminal justice reform groups, but questioned by law enforcement unions

In 2003, Nevada lawmakers headed into session with their hands on a troubling new data analysis — Black and Hispanic drivers in Nevada were statistically more likely to be pulled over for traffic stops than white motorists.

The report — which analyzed nearly 400,000 traffic stops statewide — resulted in legislation from then-state Sen. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) to require police to attend racial sensitivity training and continue collecting data on traffic stops as an attempt to stem any ongoing racial bias issue in traffic stops. 

That legislation was opposed by police groups and ultimately failed to advance out of committee. But nearly two decades later, the issue hasn’t gone away.

Many of the same arguments from 2003 reappeared on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on SB236, a bill introduced by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would re-start data collection and analysis on traffic stops, and require police departments to implement a system of tracking “bias indicators” for individual officers.

Harris referenced the 2003 study in her testimony on the bill, saying it was important for lawmakers to follow up on the now-decades old report and take action if racial disparities in traffic stops still exist.

“It's imperative that the Legislature take another look at this in an aggregate sense and get some statistical analysis done on whether these biases exist in traffic stops or not, so that we can actually address if there's a problem, and if there is, figure out the best way to solve it,” she said.

SB236 has two primary functions. The first would require every law enforcement agency in the state to establish an early warning system for finding police officers who display “bias indicators” — including having a large number of citizen complaints, being involved in a large number of use of force incidents, making a large number of arrests for resisting an officer or arrests that don’t result in filed charges or having a “negative attitude” toward programs aimed at boosting community and police relations, according to the bill text.

If an officer is tagged for displaying bias indicators, SB236 would require the police agency to increase supervision of the officer and offer additional training or counseling. If that officer is “repeatedly identified” by the system, the agency “shall consider the consequences that should be imposed,” including transfers or discipline.

Harris compared the system to a Doppler weather radar, saying that like the weather forecast, bias indicators may not be an exact prediction, but can prepare law enforcement for the potential of a “catastrophic event.”

“We want to help leaders identify potential problems and to intervene so that these problems do not become catastrophic,” she said.

The second part of the bill would require the state’s Department of Public Safety to begin developing a standardized method for use by all police agencies in the state as to how to record traffic stop information, including the race, age, and gender of the person stopped and any police action taken — such as a warning, citation or search.

It would require that information be transmitted annually to the state starting in 2023, and “to the extent that money is available,” contract with a third party to conduct a statistical analysis of the data for the purpose of “identifying patterns or practices of profiling.” 

The original version of the bill would have required police officers to have at least an associate’s degree or two years of military service, and would have placed limits on qualified immunity — a legal provision protecting law enforcement from civil lawsuits unless officials “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Both of those provisions were removed under a conceptual amendment submitted by Harris ahead of the hearing.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) questioned how the bias indicator tracking system envisioned in the bill would work, saying that most examples of illegal driving came from young males regardless of racial background.

“When cops are pulling people over, and we're seeing that disproportionality among races and in gender, did anyone ever consider that it might be the fact that those people are the ones that are committing a disproportionate share of the crimes?” he said.

Harris pointed back to the 2001 survey, saying that the disparity between Black drivers and traffic stops had a strong statistical basis.

“Yes, we've considered it, and I do not believe there is any evidence that African Americans are more likely to speed in the same manner that there is evidence that males are more likely to speed, hence the higher insurance rate for males,” she said.

The bill was supported by a wide range of criminal justice reform advocates, from the ACLU of Nevada to libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity. Many shared stories of past examples of police violence; the niece of Byron Williams, a Black man killed in police custody in Las Vegas after saying “I can’t breathe” two dozen times, testified in favor of the bill.

“There's nothing radical nor unreasonable in this bill,” Mass Liberation Project lead organizer Leslie Turner said. “This is actually the bare minimum, data collection and transparency.”

The bill even attracted support from some police unions.

“It will require further dialogue with the law enforcement agencies to develop those policies,” Executive Director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers Rick McCann said. “You know, dialogue is not a bad thing. We need more of it, quite frankly. Statistical analysis is not a bad thing.”

But the Las Vegas Police Protective Association — the union representing Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department rank and file officers and the largest police union in the state — testified in opposition to the bill, saying many of the measure’s supporters were from anti-police groups that supported the abolition of police unions.

LVPPA representative John Abel said the union hadn’t been in contact with Harris about the bill, and could potentially be in support of the legislation if it was shown that officers did not have any “newly added paperwork or documentation” for the measure. He suggested that other support from other police unions, such as NAPSO, wasn’t reflective of how most police in the state felt about the issue.

“These two groups should denounce this legislation as I know their members probably aren't supportive of their union,” he said.

Metro police lobbyist Chuck Callaway said the agency was opposed to the bill, but was working with Harris on amendments that move the state’s largest police force to the neutral position. Metro filed a fiscal note estimating an annual $22 million cost to implement the bill, but Harris said the agency would be able to use existing data collection systems and not require them to find new software.

Still, Callaway bristled at some of the comments made by bill supporters.

“In regards to some of the testimony that was made during the hearing, I kind of take a bit of offense to the term ‘police violence,’” he said. “Police officers are out doing a very difficult job on a daily basis, and they react to the actions of suspects and people that they encounter on calls and on stops during the course of their duties.”

Sen. Melanie Schieble (D-Las Vegas) said she understood why law enforcement may have an emotional response to suggestions of implicit bias — saying that she had in the past been accused of “pretty much racism” in online and real-world spheres, an experience she called “emotional and jarring.”

But she said the purpose of SB236 was not punitive, and in fact represented one of the lightest approaches possible to deal with implicit bias.

“You're not calling people out on Twitter, you're not putting them on the record in a court of law, you're not posting a list in their front lobby,” Scheible said. “You are privately talking to one officer with actual data to say ‘Hey, we noticed that over the last six months, these 10 things happened...and you might not know this, but that's not normal. I can't think of a lighter touch for an officer than that one on one conversation.”

Proponents of decriminalizing traffic tickets in Nevada hope that fifth try is the charm

A police officer stands at the scene of a traffic accident.

For at least the fifth session in a row, Nevada lawmakers are looking to decriminalize traffic tickets — an action proponents say would move the state away from the vestiges of a Victorian-era debtor’s prison but that local governments continue to oppose because of how it might affect their budgets.

Minor traffic offenses are considered criminal misdemeanors that — if unpaid — escalate to warrants that can lead to arrest and are punishable by up to six months in jail. AB116 — a bill that Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) presented Thursday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee — would make them civil infractions and not punishable by jail time that can lead to job losses and other ills. 

“It is a reality many Nevadans face — a simple $400 traffic ticket can have a serious adverse effect on a person's life,” said Alex Wong, a youth legislator who helped present the bill. “Courts, in an effort to enforce the offense, may issue criminal warrants for these people. Many times, this provides a tragic introduction to the criminal justice system.”

About 270,000 traffic warrants were pending in the Las Vegas Justice Court alone at the start of the pandemic, when that court announced it would temporarily not be enforcing those warrants because of the health crisis.

While Nevada is one of just 13 states to categorize a traffic ticket as a criminal issue, efforts to downgrade it have failed in sessions dating back to at least 2013 and in spite of an interim study on the topic. This time around, however, prosecutors who were previously opposed have added their support, saying they’d prefer to devote their resources to prosecuting serious crimes rather than traffic cases.

“Of all the discussions that we've had about criminal justice reform, it seems we’ve ignored the most obvious candidate for reclassification, in terms of bill passage,” said John Jones of the Clark County district attorney’s office. “We're talking about a low level, minor traffic offense like speeding, having your tail light out. It surprises most people to learn they're committing a misdemeanor offense when they commit a traffic violation.”

Nguyen emphasized that the bill would still allow serious driving-related offenses, such as vehicular manslaughter or driving under the influence, to be prosecuted criminally. And the measure would maintain a system of “points” or demerits on someone’s driving record that can lead to a license suspension.

But Nguyen’s biggest challenge is likely to be local governments. Representatives from Carson City, Douglas, Lyon, Storey, Lincoln and Clark counties, as well as the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson Reno and Sparks, testified in opposition, citing budget concerns. The City of North Las Vegas testified in neutral.

“I am aware of ... the current funding structure and I don't want to disrupt that,” Nguyen said. “And so, while I may probably fundamentally disagree that we should be funding our courts and governments on the backs of traffic citations, I also recognize that and I'm flexible enough to know that I need to be realistic, I need to ... come up with pragmatic solutions for our local governments.”

Leisa Moseley of the Fines and Fees Justice Center said that in spite of public records requests, local governments have not offered a clear picture of how much money they make from fines off traffic tickets. But several submitted fiscal notes estimating how much it would cost them to implement the bill and lose the ability to jail people for failing to pay up. Clark County topped the list, estimating it would lose nearly $13 million a year by having to make the change, out of annual general fund revenues of about $1 billion.

Lincoln County District Attorney Dylan Frehner said that the pandemic had reduced the county’s collection of fines and fees to less than $100,000 instead of the budgeted $350,000, putting a major wrench in a county general fund budget of $4 million. He also testified how time-consuming it can be to collect civil fines from people.

“The impact that this is going to put on us, to change our systems to be able to do additional work, to go outside and try to collect these — it's going to make it very difficult on the county,” he said. 

But proponents of the bill question whether local governments are factoring in how much they would save by not sending traffic offenders through a criminal process. Public defender lobbyist John Piro said they needed to count time spent in jail, which is $190 per night at the Clark County Detention Center.

Also in opposition was Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway, who said that while the general concept of decriminalization was “great,” he didn’t want it to change procedures for officers in the field.

“We all know traffic violations — minor traffic violations — often lead to major arrests,” he said. “Just a couple of examples of that are in the case of Warren Jeffs, the child rapist who was stopped for a temporary plate on his vehicle, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was stopped with no license plate on his vehicle.”

In a tweet after the hearing, Nguyen pushed back on Callaway’s argument, saying that Jeffs was arrested on felony warrants for sex assault and that the police officer in the case would have still been able to stop the vehicle under the provisions of AB116.

Public commenter LaNiqua McCloud testified to the long-term consequences of the state’s current policy, saying she got arrested over a traffic ticket when she was six months pregnant and traveling to a high-risk pregnancy appointment. She was in jail for 17 hours before she was bailed out, and she said the experience has still held her back from certain opportunities in spite of having a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees.

Others spoke of how the practice disproportionately affects poorer Nevadans.

“We're not supposed to have debtors’ prisons in the United States. That's literally something out of a Charles Dickens novel,” said Jim Hoffman of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice. “The idea that people should be locked up because they're too poor to pay is something that we as a society, firmly reject.”

Nguyen said she was hopeful that this year’s venture into making the change would be more successful. She said she’s counted 37 stakeholder meetings she had already had on the bill and has both progressive and conservative supporters.

“I'm proud to have a more diverse group of individuals and organizations’ support, and I think that's what's needed when you're taking on such, like, a monumental task,” she said.

Thursday was the bill’s first hearing, and the committee did not vote on the measure. Committee chairman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said if the bill comes up for a committee vote, it would likely be amended from the current version; Nguyen said there are still active discussions about the structure of civil penalties for traffic violations and how that revenue should be disbursed.

Bill banning police ticket or arrest quotas embraced by unions, civil liberty groups

The official line from law enforcement is that ticket quotas don’t exist in Nevada.

But on Thursday, members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee were told a different story.

Even though quotas for tickets or arrests aren’t written down in official policy, representatives of police unions told lawmakers that many agencies still operate under a cultural assumption that the more tickets issued or more arrests made, the better.

“The belief is that an officer producing high numbers in these stats is a productive police officer and vice versa, one that is not producing in these areas is not productive,” Las Vegas Metro Police Managers and Supervisors Association vice chair Troyce Krumme said. “If policing were a Fortune 500 company, this belief would be accurate, but policing is not a Fortune 500 company dependent on profits to exist.”

The touchy subject of police quotas would be explicitly banned under AB186, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) and that attracted support from police unions and Republicans during its hearing on Thursday.

Nguyen said that while Nevada police agencies are adamant that quotas don’t exist in the state, the issue was more of a cultural one — meaning that it is easier for law enforcement to quantify things like tickets or arrests over “evidence-based policing practices” that result in more positive interactions between individuals and police.

“You can see some of the pervasive philosophy behind quotas still exists there, when you see police officers making arrests at a certain time of the month,” she said. “You can hear from supervisors and management that it is something that we have just become accustomed to in law enforcement to quantifying that number, because it is easy to quantify that number.”

The text of the bill is straightforward — it would prohibit police agencies in the state from ordering, mandating, or requiring officers to “issue a certain number of traffic citations or make a certain number of arrests over any period.” It also would prohibit agencies from considering the number of citations issued, arrests made, or amount of fines assessed from citations by any individual police officer during a performance review.

Supporters of the bill pointed to a handful of other states — Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Illinois — that have taken legislative action to ban or deter the use of quotas.

Nguyen did offer an amendment that would remove language prohibiting police agencies from suggesting that officers issue a certain number of citations or make a certain number of arrests. Backers of the bill said that change would preserve flexibility for supervisors without gutting the intent of the bill.

“I can assure anyone who has a question whether a supervisor can hold their people accountable to work productivity, in light of this bill passing, I can assure the committee that they can,” Krumme said. “They'll have to find new strategies, which is, I believe, the point of reform.”

The bill attracted a wide variety of support — ACLU of Nevada Policy Director Holly Welborn said the legislation would give civil rights organizations the “tools that we need to monitor law enforcement behavior,” pointing to an developing litigation in Rhode Island brought over similar language in that state’s law.

The libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute also supported the proposed legislation, saying it evoked a similar issue raised with police abuse of civil asset forfeiture law.

“When police are incentivized, financially or otherwise, to locate potential criminal activity, it is lower income minority neighborhoods which suffer most,” NPRI lobbyist Daniel Honchariw said.

But police departments generally testified against the bill, saying that they were not supportive of quotas but didn’t want to be stripped of supervisory oversight of rank-and-file officers.

“The taxpayers are paying the salary for this officer and we expect them to work,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway said. “Although we don't have a quota, and we're not telling them to write X number of tickets, a supervisor needs to be able to have that conversation with employees that they need to get out and address crime that is occurring. And often that requires citations to be written and it requires arrests to be made.”

Nguyen — who is also sponsoring a bill that would decriminalize traffic tickets —  said she was prepared to continue working with opponents of the bill, adding that the larger issue of over-policing wouldn’t be fixed with just one piece of legislation.

“Will this completely eliminate that? Probably not,” Nguyen said. “But I think it is a very good step in the right direction, in giving guidance on what our policy as a state to curb these negative, unnecessary, policing for profit interactions with our community.”