May 31, 2023 - 9:00 pm
The looming end of the legislative session brings inevitable brinkmanship and conflict. But that shouldn’t overshadow the myriad examples of bipartisan consensus that have emerged in Carson City.
On Tuesday, Gov. Joe Lombardo, a Republican, signed Assembly Bill 101, which passed both the Democratic-led Senate and Assembly with no opposition. The proposal imposes additional oversight on the use of jailhouse informants in criminal trials. The impetus for the legislation was the 1994 Las Vegas murder conviction of DeMarlo Berry, who was put away in part because of the testimony of a Clark County cellmate.
The problem, however, was that the informant lied. In return for information, prosecutors offered him numerous benefits, including leniency in his own case. In 2011, the real killer confessed, and the informant admitted that he had fabricated everything. Mr. Berry was released in 2017 after spending more than 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
AB101 aims to avoid a repeat of such injustice. The measure requires prosecutors to comprehensively track the use of jailhouse informants and to catalog the incentives and benefits they offer in return for information. In addition, such details must be turned over to the defendant and his legal team so they may more thoroughly vet the reliability of relevant testimony.
The bill, unfortunately, includes a provision that exempts from state open records law details on benefits given to informants in return for their testimony. This is unacceptable, given that the benefits — sometimes financial — derive from the taxpayers themselves. This codicil should be removed by lawmakers next session in the interest of transparency. But the overall intent of AB101 remains sound.
Similarly, Assembly Bill 350 also passed both houses unanimously. It would enhance reporting requirements for state law enforcement agencies when it comes to their civil asset forfeiture activity.
Under civil forfeiture, police departments may seize cash, cars, homes and other valuables from people who are only suspected of criminal activity. The law also allows departments to keep a portion of the proceeds generated by the sale of such assets. Innocent owners who seek to get their belongings back face a complicated and expensive endeavor in civil court, where the burden of proof is on the property owner.
AB350 will help watchdogs and other activists get a more accurate assessment of the scope of civil forfeiture in Nevada, which will make it easier to uncover injustices and to pursue necessary reforms. Gov. Lombardo shouldn’t hesitate to sign it.