It’s a question of priorities.
Should Las Vegas’ law enforcement officers arrest criminals, or feed city coffers?
Should the city’s roughly 15 court marshals serve warrants and round up criminals who are on the lam, or bolster the city’s bottom line, one traffic ticket at a time?
Several current and former city employees — as well as lawyers and defendants familiar with its Municipal Court — didn’t have to mull those questions for long.
They contend the court’s “money hungry” approach to misdemeanor warrants prioritizes revenue collection above public safety and pressures marshals to take a credit card payment in lieu of locking up violent offenders.
Staffers say this collect-at-all-costs mentality tends to place a heightened emphasis on traffic ticket revenue — a practice that disproportionately harms poor, often minority defendants more likely to wind up in jail for failure to pay a speeding or fix-it ticket — all while leaving much more serious offenders on the street.
They blame those practices on a pair of top city managers, administrators they say have created a culture of “coercion” to better fund Las Vegas’ courts.
The serious ramifications of similarly money-driven enforcement policies were detailed last month in a blistering U.S. Justice Department report that wrapped up a monthslong investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri.
Federal investigators found that city’s focus on revenue came at the expense of public safety, resulting in practices that “compromised the institutional character of the Ferguson Police Department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing” that also helped shape practices at the city’s Municipal Court.
The report concludes that such practices led many police officers to see Ferguson’s African-American residents “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue” — an environment some say contributed to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African-American, at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson in August.
Wilson has not faced criminal charges. But outcry over his role in Brown’s death has swelled the ranks of those seeking an end to enforcement policies that allowed authorities in Ferguson, population 21,000, to collect roughly $109 in traffic and misdemeanor citation revenue per resident in 2014.
Las Vegas, which collected $38 per resident in 2014, isn’t Ferguson, though it might not be immune to this comparison.
RUNNING THE BUSINESS
Many of the men and women performing collections in both cities are armed, doing a job those in the private sector manage with nothing more than a telephone.
Law enforcement authorities in both municipalities also have been accused of plundering vulnerable residents — most recently, in Las Vegas’ case, as part of a class action lawsuit that claims the now-disbanded Las Vegas constable’s office engaged in the “illegal shakedown” of newcomers to the area.
The partially city-funded Metropolitan Police Department is also no stranger to federal inquiries, having faced a 2012 Justice Department study into its deadly force policies.
Former Las Vegas Marshal Richard Kilgore said a lot of the work of some of his former colleagues amounts to nothing short of “extortion.”
Kilgore said the court rewards those who bring in the most money, offering additional training and even promotions to marshals who negotiate court-ordered bail amounts with scofflaws in the field.
Those who don’t, he said, find themselves out in the cold.
“Officers like myself would get denied training, get stuck in court more,” Kilgore added. “That’s where I thought (marshals) were supposed to be. I’ve always thought that we’re not there to generate revenue, we’re there to enforce court orders and uphold the decorum of the court.”
Kilgore was fired from the marshal’s office last year for misusing the department’s SCOPE criminal database — an offense other valley law enforcement agencies tend to punish with a suspension.
Municipal Court Criminal Division chief Lt. Jack Manning — Kilgore’s former supervisor and one of those blamed for the court’s revenue collection practices — declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
Court Administrator Dana Hlavac, the other manager criticized for the court’s approach to collections, said comparing Las Vegas to Ferguson was “absolutely not” a fair characterization.
“I’m not going to force people to pay money they can’t pay just so we can keep running our business,” he added.
WHAT THE STATS SHOW
Records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal under Nevada’s public records law show the Las Vegas Municipal Court collected almost $130 million — some 89 percent of its total revenue — from traffic violations over the past five fiscal years.
Most of that was brought in by motorists caught speeding, changing lanes hastily or making some other moving violation.
But the court does handle its share of DUI and domestic violence cases.
Lately, when a defendant in one of those cases skips a court date or violates a court order, records show marshals have been willing to let them off with a fine — even if the offender is violent and even if it is not that offender’s first brush with the law.
Court records show Las Vegas collected more than $1 million in fines from criminal defendants in each of the past two fiscal years. It also billed nearly $26,000 from defendants facing a second battery or domestic battery charge — the first time the city sought to collect cash from repeat violent offenders since 2011, according to records.
Those same records show double-digit percentage point increases in the number of drunken drivers and restraining order violators who handed over money to the court in the same time period.
Hlavac said his court doesn’t negotiate court orders with scofflaws.
He said marshals aren’t allowed to take cash from court defendants, although they are permitted, even encouraged, to let offenders relay their credit card information to the court’s judicial enforcement unit, which does take payments over the phone.
The cash collected from repeat domestic violent offenders and other criminals over the past two fiscal years might not have been a payment made in lieu of arrest, but just a fine on top of jail time, Hlavac added.
He couldn’t say for sure whether that was the case, nor could he guarantee to victims of DUI and assault that those convicted of such crimes weren’t getting off with a fine, or merely being charged as if it were their first offense.
“It costs us $175 a day to put someone in jail,” Hlavac said. “We’ve got an obligation to the rest of the taxpayers not to do that, if we can avoid it.
“We’ll do everything possible to not arrest someone on a warrant. … That being said, when you violate the law, that person has an obligation to comply with the sanction.”
FEES AND PROGRAMS
The first time a Las Vegas misdemeanor case goes into warrant status, the defendant faces an $85 fine. If a second warrant is issued on that same case, an additional $100 fine is added. If the defendant, now faced with a $185 debt, wants to go on a payment plan there’s another $50 “financial counseling” fee.
Hlavac defended those collections, explaining that court fines and fees are the only way to fund much-lauded alternative sentencing and counseling programs that he said provide defendants with a cheaper alternative to court-ordered classes otherwise provided by the private sector.
LRS Systems, the court’s Las Vegas-based online court education provider, offers court-ordered online DUI courses starting at $225.
DUIschoolnv.com, just one of 10 state-approved online DUI school providers, advertises the same course for $95.
State and city audit records show the Las Vegas Municipal Court has implemented several “revenue enhancement” tweaks in recent years, including at least one bail and fine schedule revision in 2003 and a 2012 change that “provides defendants options for settling their case” in exchange for higher fines and a major bump in the court’s administrative assessment revenue.
The court’s fiscal 2012 revenue report notes a similar policy change requiring defendants to pay program fees before fines — a practice that could see defendants spend months or years paying the court hundreds or thousands of dollars in late fees before even starting to pay down an initial past-due fine.
The fiscal 2007 revenue report highlights a 12 percent increase in Municipal Court charges because of “procedural changes and more aggressive collection efforts.” A 2009 interoffice memorandum highlights $950,000 in new revenue generated through a boost in warrant processing fees.
An untold number of those defendants who couldn’t afford to pay their traffic and parking ticket fees were eventually thrown in the Las Vegas Detention Center, which has not released requested information on inmate offenses and bail amounts. Jail data handed over to the Review-Journal in March show Metro police and city marshals arrested more than 16,400 people on bench warrants in 2014, citing offenses ranging from jaywalking to illegal parallel parking.
OWE AND OWE SOME MORE
City employees who spoke with the newspaper recall instances in which marshals collected as much as $1,500 on a $187 speeding ticket, or were called out to cuff a defendant facing multiple DUI charges, only to see those infractions washed away with one swipe of a credit card. Still others said marshals had been directed to collect hundreds of dollars in fines over a ticket for suspended vehicle registration.
They said the system is designed to ensure that defendants who owe the court money continue to owe the court, and that those same defendants never land in jail.
“There are thousands of violent criminal warrants in the system to be worked,” said one employee, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “Instead, they’re putting more emphasis on traffic warrants or just letting these people go.”
There are other ways to collect court revenue, including several that wouldn’t pull marshals away from serving criminal warrants to collect cash payments on an outstanding traffic ticket.
One method would have Las Vegas hold a daylong or weeklong warrant moratorium — an event that has seen other cities and counties collect millions of dollars in fees by allowing defendants to pay a reduced fine without the threat of arrest.
Hlavac said the court still runs a low-key version of such a program, though it’s geared only toward military veterans. The city hasn’t widely advertised such an event since 2011.
Another would involve hiring additional civilian collections agents — the court already employs one private-sector collections contractor, at a cost of up to $375,000 annually — or expand the city’s seven-person collections team.
Municipal Court judges could look to divert more defendants into one of the city’s alternative sentencing programs — community service-style work programs that let poor defendants work off fines and fees they would otherwise owe to the court. They could also scale fines to better fit a defendant’s ability to pay.
All of those options would free court resources for working some of the thousands of criminal cases the court processes in an average year.
None would see Las Vegas taxpayers “shaken down” by a city employee with a gun.
PAY OR GO TO JAIL
Three city staff members blamed marshal’s office management for most problems associated with that department’s renewed emphasis on revenue collection, particularly marshal’s office chief Lt. Manning.
They said the 20-year marshal’s office veteran has been named in no fewer than three formal workplace conduct and sexual harassment complaints, two of which are still pending.
The city wouldn’t say whether Manning has ever been investigated or disciplined in connection with those allegations. Manning’s wife, Cheryl, has served as the city’s chief internal affairs officer since 2007, a post officials say does not include investigative authority over Municipal Court marshals.
Las Vegas employees suspect City Hall is aware of some, if not all of the questions surrounding Manning’s workplace conduct, but chooses to ignore them because he generates “a lot of money” for Las Vegas in fines and fees.
Staffers contend that one way Manning manages to boost those returns is by manipulating warrants “ordered” and “issued” by the court.
A warrant ordered by one of Las Vegas’ 20 Municipal or Justice Court judges can still be voluntarily tidied up through a defendant’s court appearance before a set date.
Marshals can’t make an arrest or collect a fine on such a document until it is put into issued status — a designation that’s not supposed to be approved by anyone but a judge.
Multiple city employees said marshals have been instructed to seek out defendants with an ordered warrant and, if found, call the court clerk to have the warrant switched to issued status, effectively pre-empting a judge’s order on the matter and dangling the specter of jail time in front of defendants being served with a warrant.
Staffers likened the practice to coercion — the equivalent of treating Las Vegas’ most vulnerable residents like an ATM.
“It’s pay or go to jail, just like the Ferguson stuff that came out,” one employee said.
Hlavac said marshal’s office supervisors are barred from changing a warrant’s status and said anyone who did so would be “in my office, immediately.”
He couldn’t name anyone who had been caught or disciplined for such an offense, nor could he point to any specific measures meant to prevent it from happening.