The North Las Vegas Justice Court sent a pair of inmates three miles up the street to the Clark County Detention Center in March.
It took them a month to get there.
Walter Latimore and James Thomas — both violent criminals with a history of mental illness — were first ordered into county custody to await mental competency hearings in early March.
Thomas was first brought up on obstruction and sexual assault charges on March 4. Latimore, arrested on allegations that he assaulted a police officer on March 3, has twice been ruled incompetent to stand trial and was last committed to the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in May 2013.
Both inmates faced separate misdemeanor charges pending in North Las Vegas Municipal Court, which placed a hold on their cases — and their court-ordered transfer from the city’s shared detention center on Stewart Avenue — that wasn’t lifted until April 2.
District and Justice court officials — who handle criminal arraignments and trials — report the pair are far from alone.
They say North Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge Catherine Ramsey has sunk her teeth into an untold number of similar cases over the past few years, a practice criminal judges and attorneys say hurts the city’s bottom line and could lead to the improper prosecution of potentially unfit defendants such as Latimore and Thomas.
COSTING THE CITY MONEY
District Court testimony indicates the Justice Court isn’t notified of Municipal Court holds and that the practice has become widespread in the two years since cash-strapped city officials shuttered the North Las Vegas Detention Center.
Clark County Justice Court administrator Terri March estimates the Municipal Court might have ignored more than 700 Justice Court-ordered transfers last fiscal year.
Every one of those inmates denied free room and board with the county costs North Las Vegas up to $150 a day under the terms of a jail-sharing agreement reached with the city of Las Vegas in 2012.
Stalled transfers appear to have also cost the Municipal Court some credibility in neighboring jurisdictions, where officials, attorneys and even District Court judges are starting to speak out.
“The big problem that I have, particularly in this context, is that this isn’t just somebody getting bound over on an average felony conviction,” District Judge Linda Bell said last month. “It appears that action may be taken on a case where there are concerns about competence or where (the defendant) is actually incompetent.
“I mean if I were them, I would have concerns about liability issues there.”
RAMSEY SIGNS AGREEMENT
Ramsey maintains she can’t stand in the way of inmate transfers to the county detention center — at least not those transfers that come complete with a District Court order.
“The detention center is responsible for transporting (inmates) when they have a District Court order,” Ramsey said. “If the detention center receives an order they need to abide by that order.”
Ramsey, acting under threat of an April subpoena authorized by Bell, recently signed an agreement recognizing the Justice Court’s authority to order such moves.
She denies ever helping enforce a policy of blocking court-ordered inmate transfers, a point flatly disputed by attorneys and detention center employees.
“It has been an issue where we have been told they are not to be moved per court clerks, per judges,” said one records administrator summoned to testify in District Court last month. “I was advised by a court clerk that the judge stated that the custody status slip was not enough, and she would like transport orders signed by a judge.”
Public defender Christy Craig, who sought out the testimony collected April 4, said that when pressed to release an inmate, the Municipal Court would grant an own recognizance release before sending them to the county, ensuring that when their more serious case was completed, they would have to go back to city jail, at the city’s cost, to finish a misdemeanor sentence.
Craig thinks those holds have more to do with egos than adjudication, part of the reason she sought to subpoena the Municipal Court’s judges in District Court.
“It’s all a power trip,” Craig said. “Judge Ramsey thinks she’s king of the world. She believes she is the equal of the Justice Court and doesn’t have to listen to them.” Municipal Court is the lower of the three courts, with Justice Court the next highest, and District Court the highest.
Craig suspects the city “isn’t fully aware” of the financial costs of insisting that every North Las Vegas sentence be served in their custody.
Those concerns have always taken a back seat to fears the Municipal Court might be prosecuting defendants unfit to stand trial.
“I am going to be looking into whether or not the Municipal Court has proceeded on cases where we’ve raised questions of competency,” Craig said in District Court last month. “I think as long as this kind of question is allowed to linger, I think we’re going to have continuing problems.”
CITY ATTORNEY FAVORS COMMUNICATION
City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan, who helped broker a shaky peace over the practice reached between Craig and the Municipal Court last week, did not return requests for comment.
Her position, as related in District Court transcripts, is there is still time to get North Las Vegas’ court jurisdictions on the same page before serving subpoenas to its judges.
“I would just ask that I be able to go back and talk to them,” Morgan told Judge Bell last month.
“I know (Municipal Court) Judge (Sean) Hoeffgen and I have been communicating very well since I’ve taken office on how to streamline court procedures and the other issues that have been happening.”
Hoeffgen, like Ramsey, would have faced a subpoena in the absence of the recently stamped agreement to acknowledge Justice Court-ordered transfers. He did not return requests for comment.
City officials say they’re looking into the matter.
“The new mayor and council have been working hard to repair broken relationships throughout the region and are aware of and working to resolve some of the ongoing issues in our courts that are spilling out and impacting our neighbors,” Mayor’s Office Chief of Staff Ryann Juden said via text message Thursday.
Contact James DeHaven firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.