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Traffic exits from Paris Las Vegas on Monday, March 20, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

One of the most significant criminal justice bills of the 2019 Legislature — decriminalizing minor traffic violations — is being opposed by police and local governments who lauded the effort but claimed it would be “nigh on impossible” to implement.

As introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager, AB411 would move the vast majority of traffic violations from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil offense, unless a more severe penalty for the offense exists in state law. It would affect a wide range of illicit traffic behavior including speeding, driving with individuals in a truck bed, illegal turns, driving without a seatbelt or not complying with directives in a construction zone, while retaining higher penalties for more serious crimes like DUI, reckless driving or drag racing.

The bill would enable police to retain the ability to issue traffic citations and to issue and collect fines — but it would remove criminal penalties for traffic violations, get rid of nearly all chances of incarceration for traffic citations and largely forbid courts from issuing bench warrants and arresting a person for not paying traffic tickets. Although no state entity collects information on traffic tickets issued in Nevada, tens of thousands of citations are issued annually by individual courts (including Las Vegas) and between 25 to 50 million traffic tickets are issued nationally every year.

Yeager told lawmakers on the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the bill came out of an interim legislative committee studying the issue, and that similar concepts had come about in previous sessions but never advanced given the complex nature of the issue and the fact numerous government agencies are funded by traffic ticket fees. But he said tackling the issue was a matter of “equity” for Nevada citizens, and that the current treatment and enforcement of traffic tickets did not follow the same standards of other criminal cases.

“We have a system right now that I think is of dubious constitutionality,” he said. “If we’re going to say they’re criminal, we need to treat them like they’re criminal. And if they’re not, we need to stop saying that they’re criminal, because the process that we have now is not working.”

The bill retains higher penalties for more severe driving violations, and lowers the burden of proof for a traffic ticket from “reasonable doubt” to “preponderance of evidence.” The bill also allows for a limited court process if a ticket is challenged, but allows police to submit statements rather than appear in court for such a case.

It also sets an upper limit of $250 on any administrative fine assessed on a traffic fee, unless a higher fee is authorized in state law ($500 for speeding more than 20 mph over the limit).

“What we’re trying to do here is have a uniform system of what your citation is going to be, so that if you get a civil infraction in Las Vegas, in Reno, in Goldfield, in Elko, it’s $250, and you’re going to know that up front,” Yeager said. “So no longer would it be $1,000 in one place and $100 in another.”

It also would require courts to discard any outstanding bench warrants related to a traffic offense issued on or before Oct. 1, 2019, and require the state’s criminal history database to remove records of the warrants. If passed, the bill would take effect in October 2019.

The bill was lauded by progressive groups as well as public defenders, who said that poorer Nevadans unable to pay an initial traffic fine would often avoid the court system and then snowball an initially small infraction into jail time and other dire consequences.

“Most of us in this room aren’t living paycheck to paycheck,” Clark County public defender’s office lobbyist John Piro said. “But when you do live paycheck to paycheck, a $400 traffic ticket can ruin your life.”

But representatives of municipalities, while largely praising the goals of the legislation, warned that such a shift would likely result in millions of dollars in lost revenue for local governments.

Dylan Shaver, a lobbyist for the city of Reno, said that city officials have moved to limit fine amounts and used any excess proceeds to offer specialty court programs designed to help vulnerable populations such as veterans or the homeless, but warned those could be put at risk if the city was unable to count on the same level of revenue from traffic tickets.

“You combine all of these things together, and all of those specialty courts that we offer? Those go away,” he said. “We have to realize that as these costs…are pushed into our courts while money is taken out, we have very few options at our disposal at that point. Local governments do not have the opportunity to go out and seek new revenue sources like this body does, and we must live within a certain number of means.”

Other concerns ranged from the cost of upgrading police citation books to allow for issuance of civil, and not criminal, violations, as well as the October implementation date.

“This would require a major overhaul of the processes and procedures, and I believe there was an October deadline proposed,” Sparks lobbyist Shirle Eiting said. “It would be nigh on impossible for the court to meet that deadline.”

In terms of a fiscal impact on courts, Las Vegas Municipal Court Administrator Dana Hlavac raised a host of concerns with the bill, saying that the court’s current collection rate for fees on traffic tickets (above 70 percent) would likely sink if the offenses were made civil, giving the court fewer ways to pressure individuals to pay traffic tickets — estimating a cost to the court of $4.5 million annually. He also estimated that reducing traffic fines to $250 would cost the court $1.5 million annually.

Thirty-seven states do not treat traffic tickets as criminal offenses, and at least 22 states since 1970 have removed criminal sanctions on minor traffic infractions, allowing governments to still assess a fine but removing most possibilities of incarceration.

As a backup in case AB411 does not pass, Yeager is also sponsoring AB434, which would not result in a full transition to civil penalties but instead create a new class of “petty misdemeanor” for a slew of minor traffic violations, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or 100 hours of community service. It also would set a standard fine scale for speeding equal to $10 for each mile over the posted speed limit, and require any penalty to be downgraded to a non-moving violation if the offending person paid their fine in full prior to a court appearance.

It also would create a repayment schedule if an individual had more than one outstanding assessment or fine to pay, and give individuals who miss an initial court appearance a 14-day grace period before a bench warrant is issued.

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