Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 | 2 a.m.
CARSON CITY — A bill being proposed at the Nevada Legislature would change minor traffic violations from criminal to civil infractions, which would end the practice of issuing warrants when fines cannot be paid.
It’s being introduced by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, D-Las Vegas, to “totally decriminalize” minor traffic violations, where Nevada is one of 13 states that still arrests violators for such unpaid infractions.
“People who are unable to pay traffic fines for minor violations such as speeding or driving with a broken taillight can be arrested and even incarcerated. This costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year, and it can cost those who are unable to pay the loss of their jobs,” Nguyen said.
Leisa Moseley, the Nevada state director of the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center, said lower-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the fees associated with criminal violations. The center reports that 270,000 warrants were outstanding in the Las Vegas Justice Court at the outset of the pandemic.
In Clark County, someone spends on average three days in jail after being arrested on a traffic warrant, the group said. Those three days often produce a spiral effect, where a person loses their job and has even less money for expenses such as housing and caring for their family. That makes it even more difficult to pay the debt to the court system.
And that stay in jail costs taxpayers $400, the group said.
“It is our goal to eliminate fees that are associated with the criminal justice system,” Moseley said.
The state does have an example to look to within its borders.
When Carson City stopped issuing warrants for traffic cases in 2019, the city’s collection rate on fines increased by 8.5%. Moseley said that Carson City’s example makes it obvious that people want to pay their bills and will do so once some of the fees and fines are removed.
“What we’ve learned is that it is not about a willingness to pay, it’s about an ability to pay,” she said.
Moseley said the pandemic exposed “how financially strapped” many residents are in the economic crisis. Those whose budgets typically wouldn’t be impacted by the unplanned expense of a traffic ticket are now scrambling to make ends meet.
The bill is identical to one introduced in the 2019 session by Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas. That bill passed the Assembly 36-5 (with one excused) before stalling in the Senate, where it wasn’t brought up for a vote.
Nguyen expects substantial amendments before a vote, including talks about implementing a community service option to pay for fines or basing fine repayment on income.
“I anticipate there will be some pretty substantial amendments that still maintain the intent and the integrity of decriminalizing traffic (citations),” Nguyen said.
But she’s confident it will get done, especially with support from Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas.
It’s another step in criminal justice reform that’s being closed examined in other states — and federally. It follows in line with reform bills passed in 2019 to streamline the process to seal minor marijuana convictions and restore voting rights to convicted felons.
“I think there’s just been more education and I think people are looking at ways to, not only save our government money … I think there’s just more research and people have more of an interest in it,” Nguyen said.