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Horrific NLV crash reveals gaps, flaws in driving enforcement

Updated February 14, 2022 - 4:46 pm

On paper, Gary Dean Robinson had a clean driving record the day police say he ran a red light and caused a horrific crash in North Las Vegas.

His spotless three-year history from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles didn’t reflect his alarming driving habits — local police had caught Robinson speeding at least five times since August 2020, at rates ranging from 19 to 40 mph over the limit. On the day of the crash, officials said he propelled his red Dodge Challenger down a city street at more than 65 mph over the limit before slamming into a minivan and killing himself and eight others.

“I don’t understand why this happened, and why he was out there driving,” said LaShonda Warfield, whose brother Tanaga Miller died riding in Robinson’s car. “He had a clean record, but who gave him that clean record? It wasn’t because he earned it.”

The crash, and Robinson’s history of citations, exposes how serious flaws and gaps in Southern Nevada’s enforcement systems are failing to keep dangerous drivers in check and off the roads, officials say.

The problems are complex: Nevada drivers can accrue more demerit points from low-level speeding convictions than neighboring states before facing license suspension. A lack of real-time communication between local police agencies and courts allows repeat offenders to evade serious consequences. Court systems face a daily influx of new citations — one reports a backlog of more than 170,000 pending traffic cases.

In Robinson’s case, officers repeatedly ticketed him for lesser speeds than their radar measured him traveling, police records show. It’s a common practice used when police want to give errant drivers a break.

The courts further reduced charges for Robinson, who was not represented by an attorney, allowing him to skip traffic school and keep his license free of demerit points. The two times he was found guilty of speeding, the court did not pass along the convictions to the DMV.

Had the 59-year-old been convicted for driving the recorded higher speeds, his license probably would have been suspended prior to Jan. 29, the day officials say he caused the deadliest crash on Nevada roadways in at least three decades, according to one former Clark County prosecutor.

Confidential criminal justice records obtained by the Review-Journal show Robinson had a lengthy arrest history dating to the early 1980s. He is a felon and spent time in a state prison in the early ’90s.

Instead, the multiple police agencies that stopped him operated in information silos, unable to see his citation history from neighboring departments when they cut him a break. The same was true for the overwhelmed courts that turned his speeding citations into parking tickets.

“There’s a complete lack of communication between the governmental agencies,” said Thomas Moskal, the former chief deputy district attorney in Clark County’s vehicular crimes unit. “So, a lot of people are going to slip through the cracks the way Robinson did.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation, helping create a backlog of more than 170,000 traffic citations in Las Vegas Justice Court. The county has hired two special prosecutors to tackle the accumulation.

Last year, Nevada officials reported 382 crash-related fatalities, the deadliest year on state roadways since 2006, according to preliminary data. Excessive speed has been a factor in about one-third of all fatal crashes in recent years.

[Review-Journal journalists would like to talk to Southern Nevada residents who have been injured in car crashes, or had loved ones who have died in crashes. Please tell us your story at trafficsafety@reviewjournal.com. Include your name, phone and email.]

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said the significant increase in traffic fatalities is “directly related to people not being held responsible for their actions” because of the backlog.

He and District Attorney Steve Wolfson are now calling for a thorough review of how the court is handling traffic cases.

“The whole system needs to be looked at and reviewed to see if we are doing what we should be doing when it comes to prolific traffic offenders,” Wolfson said.

Speeding tickets hidden from view

Robinson’s string of speeding tickets began just a few miles from where he died.

Not long after sunrise in late August 2020, a North Las Vegas police lieutenant pulled over Robinson for speeding near the intersection of Pecos Road and Centennial Parkway.

The officer’s radar gun clocked Robinson driving a black Acura traveling north at 85 mph in a 45 mph zone, police records show.

Moskal said the infraction was bad enough to charge Robinson with reckless driving, one of Nevada’s most serious traffic violations. But the officer who stopped him ticketed him for traveling just 5 mph over the limit instead.

The stop was part of a three-day enforcement event aimed to “change risky behavior through individual interaction and discussion with drivers,” department spokesman Alexander Cuevas wrote in a statement.

Police footage of the stop does not exist, but Cuevas said Robinson and other drivers were “admonished that future violations would be met with harsher penalties and educated about the dangers of high-speed driving.”

The city’s court reduced the charge to a parking ticket once Robinson paid a $115 fine, thus excluding the stop from his state DMV driving history and concealing it from other Las Vegas Valley law enforcement agencies.

Because Southern Nevada police officers rely on DMV records to determine a driver’s record in other jurisdictions, they often operate without complete information when writing traffic tickets. They see only what a driver is convicted of by the courts, not what other officers have ticketed them for.

“We’re trying to look at is (it) this guy’s first ticket ever? Or is this a frequent traveler that needs a different level of enforcement?” Nevada Police Union president Matthew Kaplan said.

Robinson was caught speeding twice more inside city limits during the next six months. On both occasions, officers ticketed him for traveling at speeds slower than their radar gun recorded, records show.

Neither charge was reduced by the North Las Vegas Municipal Court, but for an unknown reason, the DMV has no record of the convictions. City officials were unable to immediately explain the discrepancy, while DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said it could be because Robinson was still paying the court fines related to the convictions.

Another six months would pass before Robinson received another ticket.

Bodycam footage from August shows him arguing with a Metropolitan Police Department officer from behind the wheel of his red Dodge Challenger near Summerlin.

Police records show he was traveling 55 mph on a stretch of Durango Drive with a posted 35 mph limit. The officer ticketed Robinson for the exact speed he was traveling, warning him the area was dotted with parks and pedestrian walkways.

“I’ve been driving slow all day,” Robinson said.

Las Vegas Municipal Court later reduced the charge to a parking ticket once Robinson paid another fine.

In December, Robinson got his final speeding ticket.

Records showed he was driving at 19 mph over the speed limit on Craig Road before sunrise. He told a Metro officer that he was leaving work at a nearby Amazon facility, although the company reports it has no record of his employment.

Bodycam footage shows the officer ticketing him for doing only 10 mph over, letting Robinson know he was lucky.

“I only gave you half price,” the officer said.

Despite it being Robinson’s fifth speeding ticket on local roads since August 2020, Moskal said court records show the Las Vegas Justice Court considered it his first violation in three years. Robinson entered a guilty plea online in late January and received notice the charge would be amended to a parking ticket once he paid a $150 fine.

Nine days later, he crashed the Challenger into a minivan carrying seven family members on Commerce Street in North Las Vegas.

Local court records show Robinson was charged with more than a dozen traffic violations dating to 2006, none of which include driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to driving on a suspended or revoked driver’s license and in 2010 to driving without a valid license, the records show.

Chronic speeders can lose their license

Nevada residents can temporarily lose their driver’s license if they are found guilty of breaking enough traffic laws.

But to risk a six-month suspension for speeding alone, a driver would need to be convicted of traveling more than 30 mph over the limit three times within a 12-month span.

Drivers can rack up even more convictions at lower speeds before facing consequences, and demerit points last only 12 months on a license.

In the past five years, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles reports that it suspended fewer than 800 licenses for drivers who exceeded 12 demerit points.

Neighboring states act more quickly than Nevada to revoke drivers’ privileges for speeding, according to a Review-Journal survey of officials.

California suspends the license of anyone convicted of speeding four times in a 12-month span. Being caught traveling over 100 mph on a state road can lead to suspension even faster.

Arizona and Oregon have similar laws, but applied over a 24-month span.

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Traffic matters are ‘lowest priority’

Robinson’s experience in court is not unusual for Nevada drivers, said Moskal, the former prosecutor.

In 2019, Nevada lawmakers changed state law to allow speeders to reduce their tickets to parking citations without attending driver’s school if they immediately paid their full fine.

Two years later, they passed legislation with near-unanimous support, decriminalizing minor traffic tickets to civil infractions that don’t carry the risk of jail time. A UNLV researcher testified that people of color and low-income communities were subjected to higher rates of traffic citations and subsequent warrants.

But even before that, Moskal said the district attorney’s office had an unwritten policy to plea down most speeding cases that came before prosecutors in Las Vegas Justice Court. When he joined the office in 2014, he and other prosecutors would gather in a courtroom once a week to resolve as many tickets as possible without taking them to trial.

As many as 12,000 traffic citations are filed with the court each month, according to officials.

“In the criminal justice system, traffic matters are the lowest priority,” said Moskal, who left the district attorney’s office in July to work in criminal defense, specializing in DUI cases. “The truth of it is that the system would crumble if we were putting all the resources we needed to do these things the right way.”

And similar to the problem that police have, prosecutors also can’t easily and quickly access a driver’s case history in nearby courts, he said.

“We don’t have full information while we’re doing this,” Moskal said. “So the person that you might be cutting a break to might be the exact person, if you had full information, you would not be cutting that break.”

District Attorney Wolfson said most low-level tickets were handled directly by the traffic court, without the involvement of prosecutors. But he also called for more scrutiny into how the system handles drivers who receive multiple traffic tickets.

For now, the county’s new Office of Traffic Safety is working to improve coordination between police, the courts, and government agencies.

“We can’t have a system that is only partially working,” county Commissioner Michael Naft said. “We can hire 1,000 more police officers who focus solely on traffic safety, but at the end of the line, the consequences have to be real.”

Investigative reporter Briana Erickson contributed to this story. Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter. Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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