A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday barring the embattled Las Vegas constable’s office from pursuing a $100 collection fee against a former Utah woman it cited for not having Nevada license plates.
The woman, Nicole McMillen, filed a lawsuit in May accusing the constable’s office of violating her constitutional rights and shaking her down for the $100.
Constable John Bonaventura and his office have defended the practice of collecting the fine, arguing it 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.
But U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon said during a hearing Wednesday that he was concerned about the way the constable’s office has been collecting the $100 fee.
Gordon said he was “troubled” that there is no opportunity in state court for McMillen to challenge the collection process, and that violates her constitutional due process rights.
Bonaventura’s lawyer Robert Pool told Gordon after his ruling that the constable’s office now will consider not enforcing the vehicle registration law because the $100 fee goes toward paying the deputies who write the citations. Pool said the office would consider leaving the task of issuing the citations to Las Vegas police.
Gordon responded that his preliminary injunction only applies in McMillen’s case for the moment and he was concerned about the possibility that the office may stop enforcing the law altogether.
Earlier, Gordon chided Pool for raising untrue allegations of wrongdoing by McMillen in court papers in an effort to attack her credibility. He pointed out that a federal magistrate judge had previously sanctioned Pool for misconduct in another case involving the constable’s office.
Afterward, McMillen’s lawyer Jeffrey Barr said he was pleased with the judge’s order and now would amend the lawsuit to include other plaintiffs who feel they’ve been shaken down by the constable’s office over the $100 fee.
Gordon’s ruling comes on the heels of a Las Vegas police raid late Tuesday at constable’s office in an investigation into a secretly recorded telephone conversation between Bonaventura and County Commissioner Tom Collins.
Police are investigating the legality of the recording, which was obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and disclosed in a story in May.
The illegal wiretapping investigation is the latest controversy to hit the constable’s office, which is being abolished in January after Bonaventura’s term ends.
The office contends that it 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. The citation was issued in March after a deputy constable spotted her Utah plates on her car in the parking structure at the upscale Turnberry Towers where she lives.
NRS 258.070.3 allows the constable’s office to collect the $100 as “compensation” after a citation has been issued.
But Barr contends the law may be unconstitutional and his client is the victim of an illegal seizure.
On June 6, a couple weeks after the suit was filed and a Review-Journal story on the suit was published, a misdemeanor citation against McMillen was filed in Las Vegas Justice Court.
Barr didn’t take kindly to the action.
“They’re using the criminal justice system to bludgeon her into paying the $100,” Barr said in an interview earlier this week.
More questions, meanwhile, have been raised about the practice of collecting the $100.
Deputy Chief Dean Lauer of the constable’s office acknowledged that deputies get $65 of the $100 for each citation they issue. They get the moneyafter the $100 is received by the constable’s office.
The large share of the $100 goes to the deputies because they work on a commission and don’t receive fixed salaries, Lauer said.
“They get paid depending on the amount of work they do,” he said, adding they are duty-bound to issue citations based on probable cause and have to do their due diligence.
Between January 2011 and April this year, the constable’s office issued 14,653 citations and resolved 12,113 of them for an 83 percent compliance rate, Lauer said.
The enforcement effort has brought more than $2 million in registration fees to the state since January 2011, a portion of which has been earmarked for education, Lauer explained.
But the constable’s office also has collected $1.2 million for itself through the $100 fees, Lauer said. The money has gone to less than a handful of deputies who issue the vehicle registration citations.
Barr, a former North Las Vegas city attorney, said that practice is simply a bad one.
“It’s a perversion of justice when peace officers are compensated for each citation they issue,” he said. “Peace officers are to enforce the law — not profit from it.”
Former District Attorney David Roger said there is a need to enforce the vehicle registration laws, but he agreed with Barr’s criticism of the $100 collection practice.
“Constables should not have a financial incentive to enforce the law,” he said. “They take an oath to uphold the law as part of their sworn duty. When you offer constables financial incentive to enforce the law, it creates an appearance of impropriety.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter: @JGermanRJ.