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Show Us Your
Papers, Citizen

by Ralph Heller

n March 9 Las Vegas Review-Journal Assistant Editorial Page Editor Vin Suprynowicz reported in his syndicated column on a city program called "Identify, Detect and Locate." Metro Police make weekly rounds of long-term hotels and motels to pick up photocopies of drivers’ licenses that desk clerks are automatically providing for police. Increasingly, visitors are complaining that they are unable to find inexpensive hotel or motel accommodations unless they are willing to have their licenses photocopied for the police—although this is not required of guests at major hotel-casinos, of course, Las Vegas being Las Vegas.

Suprynowicz reported that Undersheriff Richard Winget insists that compliance is voluntary, but when visitors cannot escape this intrusion of government into their lives, the word "voluntary" becomes nothing more than a technicality, with no practical application. The program is eerily reminiscent of life in Europe between the two world wars when police, railroad conductors and everybody else insisted on seeing everyone’s "papers"—what the French police charmingly call pieces justificatives, as though one’s driver’s license or birth certificate justified his existence.

Meanwhile up in Reno on March 3 an appeal of the Washoe County Sheriff to permit his office to imprison poor people simply because they have the misfortune to be poor was denied, marking the end of an especially unsettling law enforcement story. For years the Washoe County Sheriff had been automatically converting unpaid fines into additional jail time without so much as a nod to the courts. But then a man named Steven Swanson filed suit against Washoe County and Sheriff Richard Kirkland after he found himself sentenced by the Sheriff’s office, not by a judge, to additional jail time in December, 1997.

Jailed for a minor offense, Swanson had been due for release on December 13 but because he didn’t have the money to pay a fine of $1,100, the fine was automatically converted into additional jail time and he wasn’t released until December 27, causing him to miss Christmas with his four children.

Sergeant Bob Towery of the sheriff’s office confirmed that this was standard practice and Assistant Sheriff Lee Bergevin said that the sheriff was simply following a standing order from Reno Municipal Court. But if such a standing order really exists, there is a judge in Reno who should be booted out of office because the practice of automatically converting fines to jail time had been outlawed in 1971 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tate v. Short. The reason? Precisely because the practice violated equal protection of the law, unfairly penalizing the poor for simply being poor. The U.S. Supreme Court has since 1971 twice affirmed the Tate decision, and the practice was also specifically prohibited by the Nevada Supreme Court in 1983. Accordingly, U.S. Federal District Judge Edward Reed ruled last October that inmates unable to pay their fines at the time of their releases from jail must be afforded hearings so that a judge can decide if additional jail time is warranted. Following Judge Reed’s decision, 26 prisoners were released from the Washoe County Jail.

But incredibly—and notwithstanding multiple precedents—the Washoe County Sheriff appealed Judge Reed’s decision and it was this appeal that was dismissed last month.

What we see in Las Vegas and Reno is the sort of arrogance that becomes inevitable when legislators, local courts and the press spend more time coddling law enforcement than holding law enforcement personnel strictly accountable. Just this year measures introduced in the Nevada Legislature would have relieved police of the duty to promptly notify parents when administering a drunk driving test to a minor, and make filing a complaint against a police officer a crime if the complaint turns out not to be true. The first measure makes a mockery of the idea of parental responsibility, and the second measure is a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence law enforcement critics.

In Nevada, sadly, local courts are all too often part of the problem rather than part of the solution, especially municipal judges and justices of the peace who blithely thumb their noses at the law. This is the subject of this month’s painstakingly researched cover story by Managing Editor Steven Miller, titled "A Law Unto Themselves." Would you believe that millions of dollars in fines have ended up in the wrong coffers? We might call it "convenient justice."

Personal liberty rests on a delicate scaffold of constitutional guarantees, judicial decisions, law enforcement judgment and strict accountability. And it’s the last of those ingredients—accountability—that is increasingly found missing, leaving the police and others to play footloose and fancy free with liberty’s safeguards. NJ

Ralph Heller (rh@npri.org ) is senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal.


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