Nevada bill would allow some first-time offenders to avoid jail

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John Sadler

The Legislative Building in Carson City is the seat of Nevada state government.

Wed, Apr 7, 2021 (2 a.m.)

CARSON CITY — Arresting a suspect is a time-consuming process for law enforcement officials between detaining, transporting and booking the individual. And then there’s the paperwork.

All told, it’s about a 90-minute process.

Furthermore, each day that person spends in jail, it costs taxpayers about $200, at least at the Clark County Detention Center.

But what if it’s a first-time nonviolent misdemeanor offense: Should those people be taken to jail at all, or instead given a citation in which they vow to show up to court?

That’s what Nevada Assembly Bill 440 aims to do, according to its proponents, who presented the legislation Tuesday before the Committee on Judiciary.

A report by the National Conference of State Legislators determined the citation process runs police no more than half an hour, according to Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, who described AB440 as a work in progress. The committee has taken no action on the bill.

Law enforcement, including Metro Police, prosecutors, the city of Henderson, and the city of Las Vegas swiftly came out in opposition.

The debate centered on officers’ use of “discretionary” powers, which the legislation strips when they’re dealing with suspects accused of nonviolent misdemeanors they haven’t previously been convicted of.

Discretionary powers would still be available when officers are dealing with persons not cooperating with their orders, if there’s a history of the person skipping out of court, if they refuse the sign the citation, or if there are warrants out for their arrest.

Alleged offenders would need to provide “satisfactory evidence’’ of their identity, according to the bill.

Persons busted for DUI or suspected of domestic violence, and other violent misdemeanors, would still go to jail. Nonviolent misdemeanors in Nevada include theft and trespassing.

Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway went as far as suggesting that “a public citizen (during a citizen’s arrest) would have more police power than a police officer.” Speaking on behalf of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Corey Solferino said the legislation “handcuffs law enforcement.”

“Sometimes,” Callaway said, “an arrest is needed to prevent a future problem.”

Officers in the field today already use similar discretionary powers with nonviolent misdemeanor cases, which was proven during the pandemic when agencies, such as Metro, ordered their officers to only arrest people accused of more serious crimes to decrease jail populations, Flores said.

AB440 “seeks to codify that good policy,” said John Piro with the Clark County Public Defenders’ Office. “The pandemic unfortunately showed us a way to work it out,” he added.

Callaway said that 90% of misdemeanor cases are already handled as citations only. He noted that only 11% of the Clark County Detention Center is occupied by misdemeanor offenders, and that most of them are facing DUI and domestic violence charges.

Callaway said there’s been a 13% decrease in booking at the county jail since 2007. It wasn’t clear how significantly the coronavirus mitigation efforts were to the figure.

Before a Metro officer arrests a nonviolent misdemeanor suspect, unless it’s a DUI or domestic violence, the officer needs approval from a supervisor, he said.

Callaway predicted an increase of lawlessness if the bill is passed.

“I would ask you to ask yourself,” he told lawmakers, asking what they would do if they called the police on someone and that person wasn’t arrested. “How would that make you feel as a citizen?”

Piro disputed what he described as a “fear tactic” used by opponents: “When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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