Camalot Todd

(Nevada Current) Nevada’s legislation converting some traffic citations from criminal offenses to civil ones goes into effect on Jan. 1, but leeway afforded separate court jurisdictions in administering the new law has created uncertainty about its implementation.

Assembly Bill 116 was passed in 2021 with the aim of ushering in a more equitable system for communities of color and low-income people who are disproportionately targeted by traffic stops. For years criminal justice activists, civil rights groups and legal professionals had pushed to convert traffic infractions from a criminal matter to a civil infraction, since failing to pay citations can lead to bench warrants and jail time.

The legislation makes Nevada one of 37 states that have decriminalized minor traffic violations such as driving with an expired registration, speeding, or driving with a broken tail light, transforming them into civil infractions. Some traffic infractions, like driving more than 30 mph above the speed limit or failing to yield for an emergency vehicle, are still criminalized.

“When the bill passed, the lawmakers were intentional about giving courts time to figure out implementation. This was something they knew would take a while,”  Leisa Moseley, the Fines and Fees Justice Center’s Nevada State Director, said. “This is new, nobody’s done this in Nevada, so we had to figure out how to do it.”

Because it is up to courts in each municipality or county to determine how to implement the new law, changes to online payment forms, how to dispute a ticket citation, how to confirm if a citation has been converted from a criminal to a civil offense and other procedures issues could vary from court to court in the state.

The Administrative Office of the Courts of the Supreme Court deployed a civil traffic platform called to assist local courts with the change. As of Dec. 16,  32 of the 55 justice and municipal courts in Nevada had opted into using the platform.

That platform gives people the option to pay the fine, dispute the citation online or in court, and see if a criminal offense has been transformed into a civil one.

But this option is only available for the courts who are participating in the state-sponsored solution, and

Southern Nevada courts have opted to use their own solution and process, according to Paul Embley, chief information officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The burden rests on the people to find out if the court that oversees their case is using that platform or its own and to find out if an outstanding warrant was eradicated.

“As with everything in this world, a lot of the answers to your questions will be ‘it depends,’” Judge Belinda Harris, who serves at the North Las Vegas Township Justice of the Peace in Nevada for Department 3, told participants at a December public forum on the new law.

One hard and fast rule: A person does need to respond to the citation.

Under the new law,  an individual has up to 90 judicial days (when the court is open) to respond to a civil infraction before the court would send out a notice. The individual would have an additional 30 days to respond before being subjected to civil and monetary penalties.

The bill is also retroactive to anyone who hasn’t been convicted before Jan. 1 and requires courts to cancel outstanding bench warrants.

Previously all traffic offenses were criminal and missing a payment or failing to make an appearance could result in them receiving a bench warrant.

Moseley knows this personally.

When she first moved to Las Vegas from California as a single mother, she missed a payment for her traffic citation. Immediately, there was a bench warrant issued for her.

“That was my introduction to the system, into literally thousands and thousands of dollars into court fines and fees simply because I had an expired registration,” she said.

From 2012  to 2020, 58.6% of citations recorded in Las Vegas municipal court were for administrative offenses like an expired registration and not having their insurance on them. Those citations were given out disproportionately in the zip codes with the lowest median income, according to a 2021 analysis published by UNLV scholars in the academic journal Social Sciences.

Over half of all open warrants at that time were issued to people with incomes of less than $50,000, and 44.7% of those warrants were issued to Black Las Vegans, with the bulk of those warrants being for administrative violations, according to the research.

Black residents account for less than 12% of the city’s population.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center anticipates the law will be revised in the upcoming legislative session that starts in February. At the public forum, Moseley said the group will ask lawmakers to get rid of a $50 to $100 fee to implement a payment plan, and establish an ability-to-pay assessment.

“This bill is back up for discussion and there will be some quote-unquote clean-ups,” Harris said.