Nevada is one of only 13 states where a simple traffic violation might be met with a criminal charge and jail time. Assembly Bill 116 would change that.
Assembly member Rochelle Nguyen filed bipartisan legislation in February that would decriminalize minor traffic violations, making them instead civil infractions and ending the practice of issuing warrants when an individual can’t afford to pay the fines and fees imposed.
AB 116 has seven primary sponsors and 23 co-sponsors, including Republican Lisa Krasner, Nevada’s Assistant Minority Whip. It has yet to make it out of the Assembly and to the Senate but did receive a waiver in March that exempted it from the April deadline for bills to have passed from one house of the legislature to the other.
AB 116 was most recently heard in the Assembly Committee on Ways and Means on Monday.
“It’ll be the fifth time many of you have heard a similar bill,” Nguyen said, referencing legislation which has been filed with slightly differing wording over the course of several legislative sessions.
Currently the bill is receiving pushback from some Nevada city and county jurisdictions that contend the lack of a criminal penalty tied to traffic violations could result in a loss of revenue—but, according to Nguyen and others, these jurisdictions are not taking into account the cost savings that could be realized by not spending money on criminal enforcement through incarceration, impounding of vehicles and the like.
A similar approach to the one proposed in Nguyen’s legislation has actually been in place in Carson City since October 2019, when the sheriff’s department there decided not to arrest people on traffic warrants. Since then, Carson City’s collection rate on traffic ticket fines has increased by 8.5%.
Disagreement over fiscal impacts
Still, costs of reforming the system have been a concern.
During Monday’s committee meeting, Chairperson Maggie Carlton noted that the Nevada Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety was among the departments to have filed a fiscal note concerning the bill. The Office of Traffic Safety has said it expects an initial cost of $310,000 to implement a new records management system, with an additional expected cost of $80,000 per year to maintain it due to provisions of the bill that would allow for those receiving tickets to opt in to an email or text-based system to remind them of traffic violation fines due.
City of Henderson officials estimated an initial cost of $700,000 to implement a new system for traffic violations and a yearly loss of $250,000 in warrant revenue.
While the bill is currently opposed by Henderson, the City of Las Vegas, Clark County, the City of Reno, the Nevada Supreme Court’s Office of Administrative Courts and the Nevada Association of Counties for its perceived fiscal impacts, it has received support from the public defender’s offices of both Clark and Washoe counties.
John Piro, chief deputy public defender of the Clark County Public Defender’s Office, told legislators on Monday, “We’re urging this committee to support AB 116. … We’re building systems off of criminalizing traffic offenses that disproportionately affect our most marginalized citizens. The fiscal notes don’t take into account the cost of incarcerating somebody in our Clark County Detention Center at $190 a day—and I believe they came before this body earlier in the session to ask for $200 a day state reimbursement, so the cost is going up.”
Ripple effects impact citizens’ lives
He said the fiscal notes and general opposition to the bill also don’t take into account “the ripple effects that” he “as a public defender has seen while representing people at bench warrant clinics.”
Piro said he’s watched people get picked up on a traffic violation warrant on a Thursday and be held until Monday, resulting in them losing their cars, jobs or homes.
“None of the fiscal notes take into account that fiscal impact it has on the citizens of our state. AB 116 is not only good public policy, but, in the long run, it will be good fiscal policy. So, I urge the committee to pass this bill,” he said.
Washoe County Deputy Public Defender Kendra Bertschy echoed Piro’s sentiments.
“I would note that it is absolutely—there’s an economic impact on our citizens because they’re not losing their jobs by being picked up and kept in custody for several days. They’re not losing their children and being involved in the CPS [Child Protective Services] system because of these tickets.”
Bertschy said it costs anywhere between $129 and $500 a day to keep a person arrested on a warrant for a traffic violation in jail. For Ways and Means committee members not on the judiciary committee, she said she wanted to inform them also that each traffic misdemeanor is punishable by up to six months in jail in addition to potential fines and probation time.
“I have unfortunately seen individuals who have been placed for the entire six months in the Washoe County jail for traffic tickets, so we do believe this is fiscally sound and urge your support,” she said.
The bill also received support from the Reno-Sparks NAACP, the Fines and Fees Justice Center, Americans for Prosperity Nevada and the ACLU of Nevada.
Policy and Program Associate with ACLU Nevada Nick Shepack told committee members, “We are deeply concerned by any government entity that argues for the need to wield the power of the criminal legal system in order to collect revenue when there is no legitimate public safety argument. Courts and law enforcement should not be shaking down people for revenue. This is taxation by citation, plan and simple.”
Following the hearing, Assembly member Nguyen, said that she is committed to continuing negotiations with the agencies and jurisdictions currently in opposition to the bill.
Alex Ortiz, manager of administrative services for Clark County, said that if fiscal concerns are resolved surrounding the implementation of the proposed provisions in AB 116, the county would “gladly move to the neutral position” on the bill rather than opposing it.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.