Ex-Utah resident sues Las Vegas constable in license plate ‘shake down’

A former Utah woman has filed a lawsuit accusing the embattled Las Vegas Constable’s Office of violating her constitutional rights and shaking her down for $100 over her failure to get Nevada license plates.

Nicole McMillen, 43, and her Las Vegas lawyer, Jeffrey Barr, are seeking damages and a court order prohibiting the constable’s office from continuing a practice the office says was authorized by a Nevada law aimed at cracking down on people who don’t register their cars after they move to the state. It is a misdemeanor not to register after 30 days of becoming a Nevada resident.

Constable John Bonaventura, his office and Bryan Cornell, the head of the constable’s special enforcement unit, are named as defendants in the federal suit, which was filed Monday.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through this,” said McMillen, who moved to Las Vegas from Park City, Utah, earlier this year to attend the University of Phoenix. “There are enough bullies out there.”

The constable’s office claimed it had issued McMillen a citation for not having Nevada plates — though she never received a copy — and wanted $100 up front for the cost of citing her.

NRS 258.070.3 allows the constable’s office to collect the $100 as “compensation” after a citation has been issued.

But Barr said the law is unconstitutional and his client is the victim of an illegal seizure.

“You can’t just pay peace officers for writing a citation,” Barr said. “The case has to first be adjudicated by a judge to determine your guilt or innocence.”

Bonaventura could not be reached for comment, but Deputy Chief Dean Lauer defended the practice, saying the constable’s office is operating “above board” under state law. He acknowledged that some view the practice as a shakedown, but he insisted it isn’t.

The suit is the latest in a series of controversies to hit the constable’s office. Concerns have been raised about a planned reality television show, the hiring of deputies with questionable backgrounds and jurisdictional disputes with neighboring constables. Bonaventura also has had disagreements with the county about finances.

Last year, the County Commission voted to abolish the constable’s office when Bonaventura’s term ends in January 2015, and Bonaventura is now running against County Commissioner Mary Beth Scow.

McMillen’s troubles with the constable’s office began March 25, when Cornell entered the private five-story parking structure at the upscale Turnberry Towers, where she lives, looking for cars with out-of-state license plates, according to her suit.

Cornell found her car with Utah plates and slipped a yellow card in her driver’s side window that said a complaint had been filed with the constable’s office that could result in a criminal charge against her. She was instructed to contact Cornell.

The next day McMillen called Cornell, and he suggested they meet in person, the suit says. At that meeting, Cornell began interrogating McMillen, prompting her to call her lawyer in Park City with her cellphone. McMillen handed the phone to Cornell, and after a brief discussion, the lawyer told Cornell to stop the questioning.

Eventually, McMillen got what the suit called a “shakedown letter” from the constable’s office.

The letter said a citation had been issued in McMillen’s name on March 25, but would not be forwarded to Las Vegas Justice Court for 30 days. An identification number for the citation was listed. To avoid criminal charges and a $1,000 fine, McMillen was instructed to pay the constable’s office $100 and get Nevada license plates within that period.

If McMillen failed to pay the $100 fee, the letter said, her case would be forwarded to “collections” at the constable’s office.

McMillen did not pay the fee.

More than 30 days have passed, and the citation has not been filed in Justice Court and McMillen still hasn’t received a copy, according to the lawsuit. She also has not heard from collections.

The actions of the constable’s office deprived McMillen of her constitutional rights and were “in violation of clearly established law,” her suit alleges.

“Defendant Constable John Bonaventura and the constable’s office know or should have known that the shakedown is illegal,” the suit says. “Despite this knowledge, Defendant Constable John Bonaventura and the constable’s office, as a matter of policy, have encouraged enforcement of the shakedown and have not taken steps to terminate the unlawful practices under it.”

Lauer acknowledged that the office has had complaints from people about the $100 fee.

“We’re just trying to get people to comply with the law,” he said, adding the office is authorized under the statute to collect the $100 for its costs of enforcing the law.

“It sounds like somewhat of a shakedown, but it really isn’t,” he added. “The law is poorly written.”

People don’t like paying the $100, but once deputies explain the law to them, they usually pay it, Lauer said.

He would not discuss the specifics of McMillen’s case, but said the constable’s office had received a complaint about cars parked at Turnberry Towers with out-of-state license plates. Cornell was dispatched to investigate the complaint.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter @JGermanRJ.