Indy Explains: What happens now that traffic tickets are decriminalized?
After years of trying, Nevada lawmakers finally took the step of decriminalizing traffic tickets this session, turning arrestable misdemeanors into civil infractions that don’t lead to jail time.
But what does the new law, which passed with near-unanimous support as AB116 and was signed into law on June 8, mean for motorists and those who have unresolved traffic tickets or bench warrants now?
Drivers should be aware that the key provisions of the bill do not take effect until Jan. 1, 2023, although some jurisdictions might opt to implement it earlier or prosecutors may decide to treat certain violations as mere civil citations. Although there is a provision in the bill to cancel all bench warrants for minor traffic infractions in 2023, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas), said that people with unpaid traffic tickets should still seek to pay and clear them or risk arrest.
“You still need to take care of it,” said Nguyen, who is a criminal defense attorney. “Change happens slowly.”
The measure does not eliminate the possibility of jail time for all traffic issues. Certain more serious offenses — such as driving under the influence or driving well over the speed limit — can lead to an arrest on the spot or can escalate to a warrant that would make a person liable for an arrest in the future.
Overall, however, Nevada lawmakers made a significant change with the bill that many local jurisdictions will be adjusting to over the next year and a half. It also could have major implications for thousands of Nevadans who could still be arrested at any time because they can’t afford to pay or forgot to deal with a traffic matter.
“I wish I could share with you names, and the numbers of texts and calls and emails that I get from people on a weekly basis, who say ... ‘I'm afraid to go outside, I'm afraid to drive. I'm afraid to go anywhere with my kids, because I'm afraid I might get pulled over and taken to jail, and my kids are in the car,” said Leisa Moseley, who advocated for the bill as state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Finally, there is going to be some relief for all of these people.”
Read on for more questions and answers about the change.
Q: Can the police still stop me?
A: Yes. The bill explicitly authorizes police officers who believe someone committed a traffic violation to stop and detain the person in order to investigate the alleged violation, search the person or vehicle, ask to see proof of insurance and issue a citation.
Q: What crimes remain criminal (i.e., a misdemeanor or more serious and subject to jail time) under the new law?
A: The law maintains a more severe penalty structure for many violations, including driving under the influence or having an open container of alcohol in a car.
Also in the more serious category:
- driving more than 30 mph above the speed limit
- aggressive driving
- driving on a sidewalk
- failing to yield for an emergency vehicle
- injuring a road construction worker
- unsafe passing and following too closely
- failing to obey the police
- failing to stop and render aid after an accident
- falsifying documents (such as a driver’s license application), or
- violating a court order to use an ignition interlock device that prevents driving under the influence.
It is still a misdemeanor to drive with an invalid or fraudulent license, including cases in which a license has been suspended or revoked. It is also still a misdemeanor for people to drive if they have epilepsy and have been informed by a doctor that their condition severely impairs their ability to drive safely.
Q: What crimes have been downgraded to a civil infraction?
A: Matters that are now a civil infraction include:
- carrying people in the bed of a truck
- driving in a carpool lane with too few passengers
- driving slowly and then failing to allow other cars to pass
- talking on a cellphone while driving
- lower-level speeding
- bicycling in a prohibited area
- not signaling when turning a bike or not having proper lights and reflectors on a bike
- tampering with a required pollution control device
- violating rules about vehicle length and width, and
- failing to have insurance for an off-highway vehicle.
Q: Am I still required to pay my fine?
A: Yes. The bill requires a person to respond to a civil infraction citation within 90 calendar days after it is issued, either by paying the fine assessed in the citation or by requesting a hearing to contest the citation. The justice or municipal court that has jurisdiction is required to send the person a reminder at least 30 days before the deadline; that reminder can be through a text message if the person who received the citation opted in that communication method.
A person who does not respond within 90 days is considered guilty of the traffic offense, and would be liable to pay the fine and any administrative assessments.
Q: How much can I be fined?
A: The bill sets a maximum penalty of $500 for a traffic-related civil infraction, unless a specific statute calls for a higher fine.
The bill does authorize a court to waive or reduce fines, though, if the court determines the person is unable to pay, or the court can create a payment plan for a person if the court finds the person doesn’t have the ability to pay at the moment. Courts can also reduce a moving violation to a nonmoving violation, or order a person to attend traffic school or perform community service in lieu of payment.
Q: How do I respond when issued a violation?
A: The bill allows motorists to communicate through electronic means about whether they want to contest a fine or are accepting responsibility to pay it, and also authorizes payments to be made through electronic means, in addition to in person or by mail.
A reminder that payment is due can also be sent through mail or electronic means such as email.
Q: What happens if I don’t pay my fine?
A: The matter can be sent to a collections agency, and a collections fee can be assessed. For delinquent amounts less than $2,000, the collection fee is capped at $100.
A court also has the authority to garnish a person’s wages or put a lien on property for delinquent fines. The measure also specifies that a court can order the suspension of the person’s driver’s license over non-payment.
Nguyen said it’s not clear exactly how AB116 will work in harmony with another bill the Legislature passed — SB219, from Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, which prohibits courts from suspending a driver’s license for nonpayment of fees.
Q: Who gets the money from the fine?
A: A fine is paid to the treasurer of the city where the violation occurred, or the county, if the infraction did not take place in an incorporated city.
Q: What other consequences are there for bad driving?
A: The bill still maintains a “point system” that gives demerits for bad driving. The bill directs the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend a person’s driver’s license for one year if they log a sixth civil infraction or traffic offense within five years, as long as all of the offenses are valued at four points or more.
Violations worth four points include running a stop sign, texting while driving and driving between 31 and 40 mph over the speed limit.
Q: When does the bill become effective?
A: The bill specifies that prosecutors can choose to treat certain offenses that are currently treated as misdemeanors as civil infractions at any time, although DUIs must be treated as the more serious misdemeanor. But generally, the bill’s provisions take effect Jan. 1, 2023.
Q: What if I have an existing bench warrant for unpaid traffic tickets?
A: The bill requires that effective Jan. 1, 2023, every court in the state must cancel outstanding bench warrants issued to people for failing to appear in court to respond to traffic citations that are decriminalized in the bill. It also calls on the Central Repository for Nevada Records of Criminal History to remove from its database the records of bench warrants issued for such matters.