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Bill to decriminalize traffic stops moves forward as legislative session nears end


Nevada is one step closer to decriminalizing minor traffic violations by making them civil infractions instead. The practice of issuing warrants when a person doesn’t or can’t afford to pay fines and fees for tickets would also end.

Assembly Bill 116 would bring Nevada into line with the 37 other states where citizens don’t have to worry that a traffic violation might eventually lead to a criminal charge and jail time. Reckless driving, DUIs and hit-and-runs would not be exempted from criminal charges.

Assembly member Rochelle Nguyen filed the bipartisan legislation in February. Until recently, AB 116 had seven primary sponsors and 23 co-sponsors, including Republican Lisa Krasner, Nevada’s Assistant Minority Whip.

After a long hearing Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, another four legislators signed on as co-sponsors of the measure—Scott Hammond, Dallas Harris, James Ohrenschall and Keith Pickard.

The bill passed in the Assembly on a 38-1 vote, with two legislators excused and Republican Gregory Hafen as the lone nay vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee considered the bill again on Tuesday and passed it. For the governor to sign it into law, it will need to be heard on the floor of the Senate and passed from there before the legislature adjourns May 31.

Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Similar legislation has been filed with slightly different wording over the course of several legislative sessions. Attempts to decriminalize traffic tickets have consistently received pushback from counties and cities. They contend the lack of a criminal penalty would result in lost revenue because people would no longer need to fear jail time if they don’t pay.

Nguyen and others have said jurisdictions are not taking into account the cost savings that could be realized including by not spending money on criminal enforcement through incarceration and impounding of vehicles. 

Unpaid tickets could be sent by jurisdictions to collections agencies. The hit to people’s credit scores, Nguyen said, would be an incentive to pay.

A similar approach to the one proposed in AB 116 has 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%.

Nguyen was joined by Leisa Moseley, state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, for her presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two painted a scenario in which a person living paycheck-to-paycheck ends up with a bench warrant against them after receiving a ticket for a bad tail light and ends up arrested on a Friday. The arrest leads to a weekend in jail during which they miss work and lose their job, potentially become late on rent and maybe even lose their children as a result.

They received some pushback from senators on the committee—including Pickard, who said he used to handle tickets for clients as an attorney.

“It’s incredibly easy right now to resolve these tickets,” he said. “The people that are typically exposed to bench warrants, in my experience, were those that probably deserved a little bit of accountability.”  

Nguyen countered that she has had attorneys ask her for help with tickets after having a bench warrant taken out against them.

Leisa Moseley, state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

“This system is premised on the belief that people are scofflaws, and they just don’t want to pay—but what we have found with research is that that’s not the case,” Moseley said. “When the barriers to paying fines and fees are removed, people actually will pay.”

Pickard asked what will incentivize people to pay if criminal penalties go away. He said he believed people are more likely to “pay for everything they want to pay for first.”

“Sometimes people just don’t have the resources at the end of all of that to pay a fine,” Moseley said. “How do we incentivize this? One: we take away the ability for them to be arrested for not making a payment. Two: we make the payments reasonable.

“We take away the fee to establish a payment plan—because depending on what jurisdiction you’re in, it could range anywhere from $50 to $100. Now, perhaps for the majority of us sitting in this room $50 is not a lot of money. But I can speak to you from my very own experience with this issue. As a mother of four young children going through a divorce, $50 went a long way. Ask me how much a gallon of milk costs for my children. Ask me what a loaf of bread costs. These are the people we’re talking about,” she added.

Nguyen added that things like text reminders could help people stay on top of tickets they need to pay off.

Kendra Bertschy, speaking on behalf of the Washoe and Clark County Public Defenders’ offices—both of which support AB 116—called the bill a step toward ending the criminalization of poverty.

“I wish, Senator Pickard, that my clients found it was as easy as how you’ve explained it,” Bertschy said, adding that she has had legislators and staff during the session ask her how to resolve bench warrants from tickets. “So, unfortunately, it’s not as easy as we’d like to hope.”

The bill has received support from Faith in Action, 1API Nevada, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Make It Work Nevada, Mi Familia Vota and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Immigration Clinic, among others

The Nevada Association of Counties previously opposed AB 116 but shifted its position to neutral after an amendment to the bill ensures money collected through traffic tickets will stay in the jurisdiction of the agency whose officers write them. Clark County,the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association are also neutral on the bill. 

Clark County has also previously opposed the bill, but Nguyen worked with its staff to lessen the expected fiscal impact of AB 116’s passage.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
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.