Las Vegas Sun

August 13, 2022

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Lawsuit to target bad check collection system

A defense attorney claims the district attorney's bad check unit is violating the Nevada Constitution by funding itself from fees it collects from prosecuting casino marker cases.

The head of the bad check unit, however, contends he and his deputies are simply following the law as crafted by the Legislature and seeking justice for victims of people who pass bum checks.

Attorney Robert Langford is expected to file a motion today in Las Vegas Justice Court on behalf of Kenneth Brown, claiming his client's casino marker cases should be dismissed or an evidentiary hearing held to challenge the law that created the bad check unit's money-collection system.

Brown is charged with nine counts each of drawing and passing a check without sufficient funds and theft for failing to repay $30,000 in markers he received at Bally's Las Vegas, Caesars Palace, the Palms and the Rio in March and April. Casino markers are treated as checks.

Langford argues the law that created the bad check unit's funding scheme "undermines a prosecutor's moral authority by giving the appearance of selective prosecution for pecuniary gain, which violates a defendant's due process rights and is therefore unconstitutional."

Langford alleges the bad check unit is funded "largely if not solely upon the receipt of these fees."

The "funding scheme" in question is that offenders must pay the bad check unit an administrative fee of 10 percent of the face value of bad checks of more than $10,000. For bad checks under $10,000, however, offenders are assessed fees between $25 and $500. If successful in the Brown case, the bad check unit would receive $3,000 toward its budget.

According to the statute, these fees are deposited in the county treasury in an account to be administered by the district attorney for the costs of operating the bad check unit.

Those operating costs include salaries of about 30 full-time employees, making the unit solely financed by the fees it collects.

"Without the casino marker cases, the unit would not be able to be self-sufficient, and many of the administrative employees would undoubtedly lose their jobs because the state would have to finance the operation," Langford's motion states.

Langford says a county audit found only 10 percent of bad check complaints came from the casino industry, but those cases generated close to 60 percent of the bad check unit's revenue.

The audit determined the projected revenue for the unit for 2005-06 is $4.3 million, with approximately $2.6 million of it coming from casino marker cases.

Langford says once all the numbers are digested, it's his opinion the bad check unit is a "collection agency with a gun and a badge for casinos with the power to arrest and incarcerate until a bill is paid."

The head of the bad check unit, Chief Deputy District Attorney Bernie Zadrowski, however, says he and his deputies are doing nothing more than following the law.

"We are standing by the letter of the law. The statute says we are a self-funding unit.

"The goal of the unit is to get restitution for victims and there's no doubt that's a legitimate form of seeking justice," he said.

Zadrowski said Langford's real problem is that the casino markers are treated as checks in Nevada.

"He's (Langford) barking up the wrong tree with this issue and is using the courts as a bully pulpit," Zadrowski said. "If he doesn't like the law, he should go to the Legislature and try to change it."

The Legislature first made gambling debts enforceable in both civil court and under criminal law in 1983.

In the mid-1990s, then-District Attorney Stewart Bell created the bad check unit. At the urging of casino owners the unit soon began prosecuting those who failed to repay casino markers as bad checks cases.

Langford said although "bad checks have been traditionally a minimal part of criminal prosecutions across the country" but not in Las Vegas. "That's because restitution isn't handled the same way in comparison to cases of theft, fraud and forgery," he said.

Zadrowski called Langford's allegation that the unit pursues casino marker cases more aggressively than other cases "hogwash."

"We prosecute the cases we get no matter what the monetary gain is to our unit," Zadrowski said. "It doesn't matter if it's a bad check for $7 written to the Girl Scouts or one for $7 million to a casino -- we follow the law, prosecute and seek justice."

Matt Pordum can be reached at 474-7406 or at [email protected]

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