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Las Vegas court changing the way it addresses crime on Strip

Updated December 19, 2022 - 6:14 am

Starting next year, one judge in Las Vegas Justice Court will be assigned to all cases involving crimes that occur on the Las Vegas Strip or in its surrounding commercial areas.

The cases will be overseen by Justice of the Peace Melissa Saragosa starting in January, following the expiration of her term as the court’s chief judge.

Clark County Commission Chairman Jim Gibson said the change in Saragosa’s duties is directly tied to the recently expanded “order-out corridor” ordinance, which gives judges the ability to ban people from the Strip and surrounding areas for up to a year if they are convicted of a crime.

“I personally met with all the justices of the peace and explained to them what we were doing, why we were doing it and our hope that judges would see themselves as an integral part of addressing a challenge that was large and needed attention,” Gibson said in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Although the expanded ordinance and new court calendar are being pushed by officials as a way to combat crime in Clark County’s tourist epicenter, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada is concerned that the changes might encroach on people’s constitutional rights.

Christopher Peterson, legal director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the Strip can be considered a “public forum” for First Amendment activities like protests or street performances.

“If a government is going to try to keep someone away from a public forum, just completely cut them off from it, typically speaking the government needs to have a really good reason for that,” Peterson said.

Officials began planning the ordinance and court calendar earlier this year in meetings that included members of the Nevada Resort Association, county commissioners, judges, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office and the Metropolitan Police Department.

“The objective of the Resort Corridor Court is to lower crime in the resort corridor, improve the overall employee and visitor experience, and get services for those who will benefit from them,” Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, said in an emailed statement. “We have a responsibility to try new things and do better to maintain a safe and secure experience for our visitors, employees and residents.”

Clark County Public Defender Darin Imlay declined to comment on the new court. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he would not comment beyond the statement released by the resort association.

While the ACLU has misgivings about the ordinance, the organization has not brought forward any legal challenges. Officials believe the ordinance will hold up in court.

“I think it’s a good ordinance, and this gives us a way to make a real strong statement,” Gibson said.

Crime increase

Commissioners approved the expanded ordinance in a unanimous vote in August, supplanting the prior stay-out zones that banned those convicted of prostitution and drug-related crimes. The new ordinance encompasses all crimes, and Peterson noted that it does not specify that the crime had to have happened on the Strip.

The boundaries of the ordinance stretch from Russell Road to Sahara Avenue, stopping before The Strat at the Las Vegas city boundary. The ordinance also covers the areas immediately surrounding The Orleans, the Palms, the Gold Coast and the Rio. To the east, the boundary stretches to Paradise Road and just beyond to cover Virgin Hotels Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Metro leadership has tried to address increased crime on the Strip repeatedly over the past two years, including operations to confiscate illegal firearms in the resort corridor and a push for more police officers patrolling the area.

According to Metro statistics, “person crimes” in the convention center area command, which encompasses most areas covered by the ordinance, have decreased by 9.8 percent in the past year. “Person crimes” include reported sex offenses, assaults and homicides.

In all of Metro’s area commands across the valley, “person crimes” have decreased by 4.7 percent this year.

Meanwhile, property crimes in the convention center area command, which include reports of theft, fraud, robbery, burglary and destruction of property, have increased by 31 percent in the past year, according to department statistics. All of Metro has reported a 9.8 percent increase in property crimes this year.

It is difficult to compare crime statistics in the area from before the COVID-19 pandemic, since an FBI mandate in 2021 changed how police report crime. Experts have said the new system could create a false sense that crime is rising, since more information is reported in the new system.

Addressing homelessness

While the new court calendar is meant to address crime patterns, Metro Assistant Sheriff John McGrath said it’s also an effort to find “long-term solutions for homeless and mentally ill people on the Strip.”

Some homeless people who stay in areas overseen by the convention center area command have been trespassed from properties hundreds of times, McGrath said.

“People who are homeless in convention center are very territorial to the area that they keep going back to, so when we make arrests, they get out of jail, and they go back to the same spot,” McGrath said.

However, the ACLU has questioned if removing people from the Strip will improve safety.

“Is it really going to be used to make anyone safer, or is it really going to be used to brush away people the corporations and the casinos are going to find undesirable?” Peterson said.

Las Vegas Justice Court has a community court program designed to refer people to social services when they are charged with low-level misdemeanors, usually originating from the Strip. Saragosa said her new calendar will identify more people in need of those services.

McGrath said the ordinance also will be used to refer people, specifically the homeless population, to services.

“We wanted to try to use the ‘order out’ to get them to hopefully get some kind of treatment,” he said. “So kind of like leverage over people.”

Searching for patterns

Saragosa won’t be the only judge in Las Vegas Justice Court overseeing a specialty calendar. Judges already handle calendars that consist only of DUI or domestic violence cases.

But the difference, Peterson said, is that other court calendars are not limited to a geographical area. North Las Vegas and Henderson each have their own justice court, but those were created by the Legislature, he said.

Peterson said having only one department handle all cases on the Strip could lead to judicial bias as the judge sees the same defendants again and again.

In response to follow-up questions sent to Saragosa, Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said in an emailed statement that the argument that the court could create judicial bias has “no merit.”

“We fully expect a large number of cases and a large number of defendants,” Pappa said. “Our justices of the peace perform their duties impartially, competently and in compliance with their ethical responsibilities.”

Saragosa initially told the Review-Journal that it’s harder for attorneys and judges to notice crime patterns when cases are spread between more than a dozen different judges. She said she hopes the new court calendar will give the community a better sense of why crime is happening on the Strip.

“We’re just trying to get a better handle on what’s happening down there,” she said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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