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August 3, 2015

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Police union says changes to coroner’s inquest unconstitutional

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Jackie Valley

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association filed legal petitions Tuesday in Clark County District Court to block changes to the coroner’s inquest process, alleging the changes are unconstitutional. The police union’s executive director, Chris Collins (front and center), addresses the media Tuesday morning.

Coroner's inquest challenge

KSNV coverage of police union challenge of new coroner's inquest process, June 21, 2011.

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association filed legal action Tuesday to halt changes to the coroner's inquest process that it deems unconstitutional, specifically the introduction of an ombudsman to represent victims' families.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate the coroner's inquest altogether and reinvent what the union believes is a better process, the association's executive director, Chris Collins, told the media Tuesday.

"This process is no longer fair to our officers," he said. "We have advised our officers, after seeking legal counsel, that they should take the fifth and no longer participate in this process."

Attorney Josh Reisman, who is representing officers, filed petitions for a writ of prohibition and writ of mandamus in Clark County District Court. The petitions would prevent Judge Karen P. Bennett-Haron from presiding over the first revamped coroner's inquest, scheduled for July 12, and block Clark County officials from proceeding with the inquests.

Police unions for Henderson and North Las Vegas also oppose the inquest changes, Collins said.

Clark County commissioners reviewed the inquest process late last year after public outcry regarding the officer-involved shootings that killed Trevon Cole in his Las Vegas apartment and Erik Scott in a Summerlin Costco last June and July, respectively.

Commissioners passed an ordinance Dec. 7 to revise the inquest process. Changes include the inclusion of an ombudsman to represent the victims' families, the release of key evidence and investigative files and the restructuring of meetings before the inquest hearing.

The July 12 inquest would be the first to reflect the changes. The petitions were filed on behalf of the three officers scheduled to be part of that inquest: Officers Phil Zaragoza, Michael Franco and Peter Kruse, who were involved in a shooting that killed 22-year-old Benjamin Bowman at a P.T.'s Pub last November.

Unless ordered by the court, Collins said the three officers don't plan to attend the inquest because of the alleged unconstitutional changes. The introduction of an ombudsman will make the inquest an adversarial process for officers rather than what he said is supposed to be a fact-finding hearing, Collins said.

The police union had proposed a measure during the legislative session to eliminate the inquest process altogether, but the bill failed. Clark County is the only jurisdiction in the state where officers involved in fatal shootings go through a coroner's inquest, Collins said.

"We simply wanted to be treated as officers are treated throughout our state," he said.

The police union deflected accusations that it's dodging transparency and on the verge of losing public support, citing 30 years of voluntary participation in the coroner's inquests.

"The officers would very much like to participate in this process if it was a fair and level playing field," Collins said.

Reisman said the inquest changes violate due process and equal protection laws in the state and federal constitution as well as a separation of powers doctrine — essentially, creating a situation for officers to be tried in the "court of public opinion" with the addition of an ombudsman.

"These cops deserve a fair trial, too, and that's what this is all about," he said.

Reisman said he expects the case to be assigned to a district court judge, and if the opposition requests a hearing, a judge will render a decision afterward.

It's a process that could take a week or six months, Collins said, not leaving much time before the scheduled July 12 inquest.

"We have to do this on an expedited basis," Reisman said.

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