By Henry Sotelo and Jennifer Salisbury
By many measures, the Nevada Legislative session of 2021 was remarkable. It occurred during a global pandemic and it resulted in a record number of criminal justice reform bills being both introduced and passed. The following is a highlight of those laws that are familiar in their effect and impact on the citizenry and the state.
ASSEMBLY BILL 116: Decriminalizes minor traffic violations making them civil infractions and ending the widespread practice of issuing warrants for outstanding traffic debts. It allows courts, until Jan. 1, 2023, to align their rules and practices.
The long-standing practice of the courts issuing bench warrants for unpaid traffic offenses has been hotly debated in Nevada for many years. At the time of the passage of this bill, Nevada was one of only 13 remaining states which still issued bench warrants for unpaid traffic tickets.
While counties and cities, including Washoe County and City of Reno, will face a fiscal impact from the passage of this measure, the long-term socio-economic impact of continuing to issue bench warrants would have been a harmful ripple effect on a great multitude of people.
I have seen firsthand over years of actively practicing criminal law, the direct impact that an arrest for a Fail to Pay, Fail to Comply or Fail to Appear “remand only” warrant on traffic charges has on an individual. Weekly, I represent folks who have spent days in custody based upon these warrants: families are impacted, jobs are lost and lives are deeply affected by the disproportionate impact of the punishment for the “crime” being committed. Finally, the impact of arrest and/or incarceration on mere traffic tickets can be life altering to the offenders.
SENATE BILL 219: Curbs driver’s license suspensions resulting from traffic tickets that residents cannot afford to pay. The law goes into effect Oct. 1, 2021.
Adverse effects of suspension are not only loss of driving privileges, but also warrants for arrest, as most people do not find out about the restriction on their license until they have been pulled over or stopped by police officers. This has happened on numerous occasions before an individual could discover the suspension and make proper arrangements to ameliorate the issue.
This law is directly related to Assembly Bill 116, the legislation previously discussed. My observations are very similar for folks that are held in custody on these types of charges. The impact of a conviction for this type of charge–loss of driving privileges for at least a year and a fine of over $750–is highly disproportionate to the type of crime being committed.
Understandably, DMV rules and laws must be enforced, but there needs to be more discretion given and, most importantly, exercised by law enforcement and prosecution. Under previous law, this is a “strict liability” crime that carries a long-term penalty both in fines and in quality of life.
ASSEMBLY BILL 158: Reduces penalties for underage use and possession of marijuana or alcohol. The law is effective Oct. 1, 2021.
This bill was supported by various advocacy groups, including the Recovery Advocacy Project. The summation of their position is that addiction is a disease. Under this concept, it was argued that it is imperative that those who are struggling with substance use disorder receive assistance, guidance and treatment, not fines and jail time. In fact, punishing addiction with fines and imprisonment will, more often than not, result in more lifestyle instability, driving someone further into addiction and the harmful behaviors that accompany it.
My personal comments on this law should be no surprise to most of you reading this article. I am 100% in favor of any laws that help society address addiction and substance abuse as a symptom of more serious and treatable underlying issues. This is especially true of juvenile offenders who are particularly vulnerable to “self-medication” issues when their underlying issues are not properly addressed. This law is an example of our Nevada Legislature taking an enlightened approach to this area of the judicial system.
Overall, I am encouraged by the direction in which the State of Nevada is proceeding with criminal justice reform. It is both reasonable and appropriate. Having been a prosecutor, a judge pro-tem and presently a criminal defense attorney, the balance and tenor of the laws being enacted are impactful on the challenges we face. Though much more needs to be done, I truly believe Lady Justice is standing a bit taller these days as the scales of justice are more balanced between that which is fair and just.
Jennifer Salisbury, MLS, CP, has been a Northern Nevada resident since 1995. Salisbury is a certified paralegal and part-time instructor in the paralegal/law program at Truckee Meadows Community College.
Henry Sotelo is a Northern Nevada practicing attorney. He has been a licensed attorney in Nevada since 1987, practicing mostly in the area of Criminal Law. Sotelo has been teaching the law to people in Northern Nevada for 17 years as a full-time Instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College. Sotelo is currently one of the Legal Defenders at the City of Reno, where he does criminal law defense and serves on two of the Reno Municipal Court’s Specialty Courts: The DUI Therapeutic Specialty Court and the CAMO-RENO Veterans Court. Sotelo serves as a City of Reno Hearing Officer, involving City Code violations and appeals.
Sotelo serves on the Washoe County Behavioral Health Board. Sotelo donates legal hours to the Domestic Violence Resource Center on a monthly basis. Sotelo probably needs a vacation soon.
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