Nevada this week started cracking down on notaries public that go beyond their traditional role and prepare legal documents or give legal advice.
The action, approved by state legislators, aims to regulate what Secretary of State Ross Miller calls “a cottage industry” — businesses that prepare legal documents without legal experience, often overcharging customers and causing some irreparable harm, including deportation.
Many Spanish-speaking people mistake these notaries public, or notarios, for actual attorneys. He said it’s a cultural misunderstanding, a literal interpretation of a word.
“The term ‘notario’ in many Latin American countries implies a legal background,” said Miller in a telephone interview last week. “But in Nevada and across the country, as we well know, a notary is somebody who’s in the business of merely witnessing a signature, not in the business of dispensing legal advice.
“The result is that people here in Nevada think they’re getting advice from attorneys, but they’re not.”
Miller’s office, which has been overwhelmed with complaints of immigration fraud, has the job of enforcing the law.
They now are required to register with the state and post a $50,000 surety bond if they want to continue doing business in the Silver State. All businesses have until April 1 to comply and submit their applications or face a $5,000 fine for operating without a state certificate.
The stepped-up vigilance is the result of Assembly Bill 74, which was passed last year and took effect Saturday.
Traditional notaries public who don’t prepare legal documents or give legal advice are not affected by the new law.
The business of preparing legal documents for immigration has existed for years in the Las Vegas Valley. But it was only in the past couple of years that the Nevada secretary of state’s office started seeing a 50 percent increase in complaints, mostly because of immigration reform talks in Washington, D.C., and the advent of the DREAMers — young adults who are in the United States illegally but whose deportations have been delayed for two years under a leniency program ordered by President Barack Obama.
The result was an increase in the demand to process legal documents, which is where the notarios come into play.
Some of these businesses operate in low-income and working-class neighborhoods, quite a few of them in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, particularly along Eastern Avenue between Charleston Boulevard and Sahara Avenue.
Jocelyn Cortez, an immigration attorney in Las Vegas, said she can’t count the times that she has had to clean up after some of these notaries that have dished out bad legal advice.
“People sometimes even go as far as to leave the country, thinking they will be back in a matter of weeks with their green cards in hand,” said Cortez, who works with De Castroverde Law Group and is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The reality of immigration law is that this may not have even been a possibility to begin with, but consequently families have been driven apart due to bad advice.”
She said she hopes the new law will prevent people from practicing law when they are not licensed to do so.
Because the industry has not been regulated, there’s no way of telling how many notarios actually do business in Las Vegas, but their presence is widespread. Many of them operate several businesses in one, from travel agencies to handling divorce proceedings to filing income tax returns to wiring money.
Then they throw in their service as a notary to help get them through the hard times.
And few of the notarios, when interviewed over the weekend, weren’t aware of the new law. For those who were cognizant of it, they couldn’t say for certain just yet whether they were going to register with the state in the next few weeks.
“Most of my business comes from travel,” said Miguel Ortiz, owner of Acapulco Travel and Tours Inc., located at 1233 S. Eastern Ave. “I’m not sure just yet whether posting a $50,000 bond for a service I rarely provide is worth it.”
The application to register as a document preparation service is available online at the secretary of state’s website, www.nvsos.gov.
Applicants must submit their business information and undergo fingerprinting and background checks.
They must meet certain requirements that will be outlined on the secretary of state’s website.
Once the individual’s application and background check have been reviewed and approved, the applicant must provide a cash or surety bond in the amount of $50,000 before the certificate of registration will be issued.
The registration is valid for one year after the date of issuance, unless the registration is canceled, suspended or revoked.
Processing time might take four to six weeks depending on the volume of applications and receipt of the background report from the Central Repository for Nevada Records of Criminal History.
The idea is that once the notarios are registered, consumers will be able to find them online.
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.