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September 16, 2019

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Ballot Question 1: Marsy’s Law asks voters to expand crime victims’ rights

Early voting

Yasmina Chavez

A sign in Tagalog indicating to “Vote Here” next to a sign prohibiting campaigning are posted at the Boulevard Mall voting booths on the first day of early voting, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012.

Ballot Question 1, or Marsy’s Law, seeks to expand the state constitutional rights of crime victims, including those affected by violence, domestic abuse, predatory behavior and more.

Vine System

Nevada utilizes the Vine System to notify victims—often domestic violence victims with temporary restraining orders or emergency temporary restraining orders—when a defendant is released on bail, said Liz Ortenburger, CEO of the domestic violence shelter SafeNest. Will Batista, the Nevada state director for Marsy’s Law for All, said the Vine System could be expanded to accommodate Ballot Question 1 if it passes.

The measure has already passed twice in the Legislature and will become law if approved by voters in November, replacing the current victims’ rights guidelines in the Nevada Constitution with a more explicit list of rights.

The existing amendment states that victims have the right to: be informed of the status or disposition of a criminal proceeding at any stage upon written request; be present at all public hearings involving the critical stages of the criminal proceeding; and be heard at all proceedings for the sentencing or release of a convicted person after trial.

Ballot Question 1 would replace and expand those rights by requiring that officials inform victims and their families about the defendant’s conviction, sentence, location and time of incarceration, scheduled release date, and escape from custody. Victims would also have the right to: refuse an interview or deposition request unless under court order, block the release of certain records, restitution before court fees are paid, and the prompt return of property after it’s no longer needed by the criminal justice system. Victims would also have the right to have their safety and that of their family considered when a defendant’s bail and release conditions are being set by the courts.

The measure is part of California, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota and Ohio state constitutions.

Origin of Marsy's Law

In 1983, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas’ ex-boyfriend stalked and killed her. A week after the murder, her mother and brother, billionaire Henry Nicholas, were confronted by her accused murderer at a grocery store, unaware that he was out on bail because the criminal justice system was not required to notify the family without their written request.

Nicholas’ ex-boyfriend was later convicted of second-degree murder, according to a 1985 Los Angeles Times story.

After the grocery store incident, Marsy’s brother successfully lobbied for an amendment to California’s constitution that expanded the rights of victims of crime, and now Nevada is one of six states with a version of the proposal on the ballot. Six others, including California, have passed the measure.

Five other states—Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma—have Marsy’s Law on the ballot this year. While there are similarities between the proposed laws, each state has unique language.

“Marsy’s Law for Nevada will ensure victims of violent crimes and their families have an equal voice and the rights they need to keep well informed during the criminal justice process,” said Sue Meuschke, the executive director of Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, in a statement. “This law will create a statewide protocol throughout Nevada and help victims work their way through a complex criminal justice system.”

Opponents of the measure raise concerns about hidden costs for the state and conflicts with defendants’ rights.

The national American Civil Liberties Union argued that Marsy’s Law challenges the presumption of innocence by granting state constitutional rights to victims before the defendant has been convicted, which assumes there is a victim before there is a conviction for wrongdoing. This could affect defendants’ ability to defend themselves, whether innocent or guilty.

Another criticism is that the ballot measure language is vague, open to interpretation, and would require case law over time to establish guidelines, said Holly Welborn, policy director with the state chapter of the ACLU.

Hotbed of domestic violence

Nationally, more than 27 percent of women and 11 percent of men have experienced some form of violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. In contrast, 44 percent of women and 33 percent of men living in Nevada have experienced some form of violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

“All the states that have passed it have all dealt with unintended consequences of cost overruns, difficulty determining how things should be done because of [how] the wording is—it’s really bad and really vague,” said John Piro, deputy public defender at the Clark County Public Defender’s office.

“We’re not against victims’ rights,” said Piro, noting that he believes many of the changes proposed by Marsy’s Law should be done through statutory law, which is easier to change than constitutional laws and can be more explicit in the language. Revising a constitutional amendment would take about four years and require passage twice in the Legislature.

Piro and Welborn also noted concerns about the cost to taxpayers in possible case litigations, as well as the cost of expanding the victim notification system. At this time, the total cannot be determined because implementation details are unclear.

Will Batista, the Nevada state director for Marsy’s Law for All, acknowledged that the measure would have costs attached to it, but claims they wouldn’t be as high as critics claim.

“We believe that the new process is an essential part of the Constitution and of being American. We believe that you are innocent until proven guilty, but we also know that rights aren’t a zero-sum game,” Batista said. “We want to make sure that it’s on a level playing field and that there is no conflict, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of making sure that this language was crafted correctly.”

Where to get help

If you are a victim of a crime, please reach out to police by calling 911. Below is a list of resource providers for victims of sexual violence, domestic violence and sex trafficking.

The Rape Crisis Center of Southern Nevada 24-hour hotline: 702-366-1640

SAFE House Hotline: 702-564-3227

Safe Nest/Temporary Assistance to End Domestic Crisis (TADC) Hotline: 702-646-4981

Salvation Army of Southern Nevada/Human Trafficking Services: 702-649-8240 ext. 230

Shade Tree Shelter: 24 Hour Line: 702-385-0072

The Embracing Project: 702-463-6929

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.