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Don’t mess with the veterans court system

In 2008, then-Gov. Jim Gibbons signed a bill creating veterans courts, intended to help veterans facing various misdemeanor charges. They began operating in 2011 in various municipal and justice courts.

But recently, the Clark County district attorney and Henderson city attorney have taken the position that the law gives only the District Courts the authority to hold such proceedings.

Respectfully, they are taking positions contrary to both the law and the intent of our Legislature.

I take this stand as a lawyer and former captain in the U.S. Army who has represented countless numbers of our men and women in uniform who have returned home from combat with emotional scars and trouble adapting to their civilian lives.

Nevada Revised Statute 176A.280 authorized the creation of a program for treatment of veterans and members of the military who have been arrested if they suffer from mental illness, alcohol, drug abuse or post traumatic stress disorder. These are common conditions faced by our veterans from all conflicts, including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and others.

The new law allowed certain veterans to have their criminal cases transferred to a comprehensive treatment program on a case-by-case basis. All participants in veterans courts are required to submit to random drug screens, attend regular counseling sessions and be intensively monitored by the presiding judge for both compliance and rehabilitation. The requirements are harsher than the requirements placed on defendants in almost all of our traditional courts.

Some of our prosecutors argue that driving under the influence (DUI) and misdemeanor domestic violence cases cannot be diverted to veterans court. The law itself does not specifically mention any such exclusion. Instead, prosecutors apparently attempt to extrapolate and complicate the issue by referencing other provisions of the law about what prosecutors can do with certain criminal cases.

But the gaping weakness in this position is that under the statutes, it is the judge who both selects cases for veterans court and dismisses cases after successful completion in veterans court.

Thus, the other areas of law limiting what a prosecutor can or cannot do are irrelevant to the application of the law, as it is the independent judiciary that is specifically directed under the law to control our veterans courts.

Some of our prosecutors argue that there is no authority for a lower-level, misdemeanor court to help treat our veterans. But there is nothing in the law that specifically precludes a justice court or municipal court from establishing a veterans court. Under NRS 176A.285(1), when faced with a defendant eligible for veterans court, judges in the justice or municipal court “may” transfer the case to a higher court or may not — and instead keep the defendant in their court.

Could the law be clearer on the issue of transferring veterans to different level courts? Yes. Does the law exclude the creation of veterans courts on the justice court or municipal level? No.

The law creating our veterans courts could certainly be worded better and it could be argued that my interpretation of the law is “friendly” toward veterans. In a 1948 decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court made it very clear that if there is ambiguity in a law about veterans rights, that law should be read “with an eye friendly to those who dropped their affairs to answer their country’s call.”

I am not taking the position that our prosecutors are “anti-veteran.” The reality is, however, that they are apparently the only ones who are taking steps to try to eliminate our extremely successful veterans court programs. Veterans courts are not a free pass and instead are intensive programs whereby veterans can right their wrongs and move on with their lives.

I encourage all citizens of Nevada to contact their elected officials to let them know their position on this very important issue — not only to support veterans, but to support programs that actually work to rehabilitate our citizens and better our community.

Craig W. Drummond, a Las Vegas attorney, is a former captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps and was awarded the Bronze Star for service during combat operations in Iraq.

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