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City attorney says Las Vegas will not prosecute business shutdown violators

Updated March 20, 2020 - 10:01 pm

Las Vegas will not prosecute businesses that defy Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mandate to shut down beginning Saturday because the order is unconstitutionally vague, City Attorney Brad Jerbic said Friday.

“At this point in time, there is nothing I believe, as the city’s attorney, that we can enforce,” Jerbic told the Review-Journal.

Sisolak said earlier Friday that he was ordering all nonessential businesses to close until April 16, escalating a directive from Tuesday when he strongly suggested they close for 30 days. He said he will leave it to local governments to decide the penalties for non-compliance.

But as the latest drastic move to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state goes into effect at midnight, Las Vegas Valley governments suddenly on the hook for enforcement are trying to figure out what that will look like.

“At this point, we don’t plan on doing anything this weekend,” said Henderson Deputy City Manager Bristol Ellington, who is in charge of public safety for the city.

If people call the Henderson Police Department’s nonemergency line with complaints, the city will log those complaints and follow up next week when a process is in place, Ellington said.

He said the city will start working Monday with business licensing employees for enforcement.

“We’re obviously not going to use police force on this matter,” he said.

Code enforcement employees could also be brought in to hold businesses accountable, he said.

Sisolak urged the public not to call 911 to report businesses not following the order.

North Las Vegas is sending emails out to nonessential businesses Friday and Saturday to notify them of the governor’s order, City Manager Ryann Juden said. A robocall will go out to businesses starting Saturday, and staffers will follow up by calling businesses on Monday, he said.

Fire inspectors, parking enforcement and code enforcement employees will visit businesses as needed, with follow-up visits from the North Las Vegas Police Department as necessary. Penalties have not been determined.

Clark County, which, like the city of Las Vegas, contracts with the Metropolitan Police Department, approved an ordinance during an emergency meeting late Friday declaring that any businesses that violate the governor’s order could have their licenses suspended or revoked, face up to a $1,000 fine per violation per day or be charged with a misdemeanor.

Jerbic said that if the city were to receive a citation from Metro, the city attorney’s office would not be able to prove a crime occurred because there is uncertainty about what constitutes a “nonessential” versus “essential” business.

“We are not going to criminally or civilly charge anyone,” Jerbic said.

But city spokesman David Riggleman issued a statement to the Review-Journal late Friday night that appeared to contradict what Jerbic said.

“The city of Las Vegas is in the Metro Police jurisdiction, and their officers will begin enforcement at midnight tonight. The city will look at other business license enforcement options as well over the next few days,” Riggleman’s statement reads.

Asked for clarification, Riggleman said that starting Monday, the City Council and staffers will evaluate their future enforcement actions based on Jerbic’s concerns.

Sisolak’s office followed up his strongly worded directive Tuesday with clarification the following day on what he considered to fit into each category. But for Jerbic, questions linger.

“We’re not going to shirk a responsibility to enforce a legitimate prohibition,” Jerbic said, but “we cannot literally sit here jurisdiction by jurisdiction guessing what’s essential and nonessential.”

On Friday, the state Department of Public Safety issued a proposed regulation to detail businesses considered essential and nonessential by the state.

Boulder City Manager Al Noyola said in a statement the city has “not only a civil responsibility to enforce the order, but a moral obligation.” The city will communicate with business owners over the weekend regarding the shutdown, but Boulder City residents who see businesses open that should be closed are encouraged to call the city at 702-293-9224 or go online to file a complaint.

And a statement from the Nye County Sheriff’s office said Sheriff Sharon Wehrly and her deputies will begin enforcing the order at midnight.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter.

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