Amnesty just the ticket for hundreds


A Las Vegas traffic warrant moratorium -- which allows people to avoid warrant fees and possible jail time -- drew 309 people in its first two days and will continue next week.

People with pending warrants for traffic violations can simply pay the initial fine and resolve their cases Tuesday through Thursday.

"It really is nice to get a lot of these warrants cleared," said Jill Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Municipal Court.

It was once common for cities in the area to offer amnesty to those with traffic warrants, sometimes as often as once a year.

Familiarity bred abuse of the system, however, and cities stopped offering them because of weak results and the strain on court staff. But at least one Las Vegas Valley city is watching Las Vegas to see if the idea is worth reviving.

This is the first warrant moratorium Las Vegas has offered since early 2002. That one lasted 32 days and drew an estimated 4,000 participants, about 125 a day.

"Indications are that it's at least equaling the last time," Christensen said.

The moratorium is available to people with a warrant pending on a ticket that doesn't require a court appearance.

Fines must be paid in person at the Municipal Court Services section of the Regional Justice Center, 200 Lewis Ave.

The moratorium will be offered 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. A picture ID is required.

Some statistics weren't available Thursday. The court's rickety computer system, set to be replaced next year, couldn't reliably separate the amnesty fines from everyday business, nor could it compute how many pending traffic warrants there are.

The amnesty "is very beneficial to people who are of limited means and get on the wrong side of the system," Christensen said.

It also helps city revenue, since in many cases the fines would've gone uncollected.

People with pending warrants can go to jail, said Las Vegas police spokesman Ramone Denby.

"Maybe 50 percent of the time, they're arrested," he said. "It depends on what the warrant's for, the amount of the warrant and the officer's discretion."

It also depends what else is happening. An officer may give a pass to someone who owes a small fine for a broken headlight if there's a more dire situation somewhere else.

But on a quiet night, that driver could be headed to the pokey.

At one point, Las Vegas was offering moratoriums almost annually, but people were starting to count on them instead of taking care of tickets promptly.

"We also have an obligation to the taxpayer. When people incur an obligation to the court, they need to take care of it," Christensen said.

Henderson and North Las Vegas have used warrant moratoriums in the past as well.

North Las Vegas offered the amnesty annually during the holiday season from 1997 to 2002. After an evaluation, though, the city decided to discontinue the program because it wasn't doing what it was designed to do.

People would show up "in the hundreds each time," said city spokeswoman Juliet Casey. The court was often very lenient, arranging payment plans and even forgiving parts of fines.

But, Casey said, "about 80 percent just let their citations go back to warrants" -- and then they'd show up again the following year for a repeat amnesty.

Henderson drew 184 people and $21,900 in paid fines in 1999, and 158 people and $25,800 in fines in 2001.

Since then, however, the city's taken a different approach on warrant collection, said municipal court administrator David Hayward.

The city hired a collection agency to go after people with pending warrants and also staffed marshal teams to serve warrants.

The collection agency has cleared about 5,000 warrants over the past four years, and the marshal served an average of 1,500 warrants a year for the last three fiscal years.

"We've been pretty successful," Hayward said. "We really haven't looked at moratoriums as an option since 2003."

Even so, Henderson still has a backlog of cases, although Hayward couldn't estimate how many. And the city may offer a moratorium again, depending on how well Las Vegas does with its effort.

Although Las Vegas' warrant amnesty appears to be doing well, Christensen said people shouldn't expect it to become a regular offering.

When asked if that was a possibility, she said, "No promises or comments on that."

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or (702) 229-6435.

 

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