In Nevada, drivers can be arrested for unpaid tickets. Activists are fighting to change this.
Born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, Washington said she was never arrested, let alone ticketed, before moving to Nevada. When arrested in Las Vegas – sometimes for speeding, sometimes for reckless driving – she was also cited for secondary offenses such as driving without proof of insurance, expired labels, no registration or an expired license. .
When she didn’t pay the tickets on time, she heard from collection agencies. She opted for payment plans. None of this brought him much closer to liquidating his growing debt. She tried to switch to public transportation, but commuting between work, babysitters, therapists, and schools was next to impossible.
So she continued to drive. And she kept getting tickets.
Washington admitted some of the stops were legitimate, but others it said were the result of agents targeting her because of her race. If she was wearing her TSA or casino security uniform, their tone usually changed, she said, and they let her go with a warning.
The trafficking cases were spread across multiple jurisdictions in the Las Vegas area, making it difficult to keep track of everything she had been charged with, how much she owed, and where she could go to resolve them. She took out payday loans to pay off some of the bills, fell behind on payments, and ended up having her paychecks lined for two years.
“Listening to my story, people may say, ‘Jess, just keep your things tidy.’ But people don’t realize it’s hard if you’re a single mom trying to pay the fines and fees, take care of your kids and pay your rent and have to drive to work, ” Washington said. “It’s a domino effect, and you could end up homeless.”
According to a University of Nevada-Las Vegas study for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, fines and fees for traffic violations have increased “dramatically” in Nevada to offset government budget deficits in the United States. over the years. A fee, first imposed by the state in 1980 to compensate for lost federal court funding, began as an “administrative assessment” of $ 10 for all torts. It has risen to $ 120 and is one of many fees that help fund the courts and other parts of the criminal justice system.
The longer an invoice remains unpaid, the more fines and costs are added to it. For example, a $ 300 ticket given to Washington in 2014 for driving with a suspended license increased to $ 1,280.
Arrest warrants – arrest orders typically issued by a judge when someone does not show up in court – play an important role in Nevada’s road debt spiral, increasing a person’s legal debt by hundreds of dollars. In addition to Nevada, Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming traffic citations are also considered misdemeanors, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
In other states, traffic violations are treated as civil offenses. Nearly two dozen states decriminalized these violations in a move in the 1970s and 1980s to reduce the cost and time to process criminal court tickets, according to Jordan Blair Woods, a University of England criminologist. Arkansas.
Researchers at the University of Nevada looked at Las Vegas City Court and found that 83% of the 102,000 arrest warrants issued from 2012 to 2020 were for unpaid traffic fines. Most of these warrants were for administrative offenses such as defaulting on payment, driving without a license or lack of insurance. The majority of the warrants were issued to people living in the poorest areas of the Las Vegas area. Blacks make up 13% of Clark County’s population, but 44% of open mandates.
“Ultimately, Nevada’s fines and fees system criminalizes poverty and reinforces racial disparities,” the researchers concluded.
As its trafficking debt grew, Washington attempted to shift its focus to work and community activism. She started support groups for parents of autistic children and black women and interpreted from oral poetry. She was honored by Las Vegas City Council for all of this work in 2018. She also started an event planning company specializing in garden displays.
“I do all of this from the bottom of my heart, but I also allow myself to give back so as not to face the reality of what is going on in my life,” Washington said over the phone while making deliveries with his son. to the trailer. “My goal is to get more involved in the community.”
But there wasn’t much she could do without driving.
A few years ago, Washington befriended Leisa Moseley, an activist and political consultant who had her own experience of being unable to pay minor tickets, which led to warrants, fees and charges. debts which reached about 5000 dollars. Moseley had to empty his savings account to clear his name. She was now working as the Nevada State Director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, trying to change the policies that had nearly ruined her.
Moseley said his ordeal, and that of Washington, has shown that anyone can be sucked into ticket debt.
“Here we have had a well-respected woman, a poet, an activist who hosts women’s empowerment lunches and advocates for her autistic son, and behind the scenes she is grappling with debts related to breaches of the code. out of the way, ”Moseley said. “Seeing her, you would never know that she was looking over her shoulder every day hoping the police weren’t behind her operating her license plate.”
Last year, attorneys at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Crime Clinic asked Moseley for the names of people who needed help getting out of trafficking debt. She told them about Washington.
Co-director of the clinic, Eve Hanan, saw Washington as an “organized and responsible person” trapped in an unfair system.
“Her case is not unusual,” Hanan said.
She and her colleagues agreed to help him.
Hope for a “ clean slate ”
Lawyers and students at the clinic scoured Washington’s open cases court records, added up what she owed, and found outstanding warrants. They have called for new hearings, negotiated with prosecutors and argued with judges, who have the power to write off or reduce people’s road debts.
With their help, Washington closed four cases and obtained a reduced fine and an arrest warrant in a fifth, Hanan said.
“It’s almost impossible to do this as a single person without a lawyer,” Hanan said.
Yet Washington has three open cases, two of which have triggered arrest warrants. Washington said she didn’t know she was in danger of being arrested until this week, when the clinic stepped in and persuaded a judge to put a payment plan on her and clear the warrants.
Washington said its event planning business has been successful enough that it can now afford to keep its insurance, license, registration and labels up to date. This means that she is very close to having “a clean slate,” she said.
The decriminalization bill would help her keep that slate blank, she said.
The bill is currently being considered by the State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, which heard testimony on Monday that was split roughly evenly between supporters and opponents. The opposition included representatives from cities who said their agencies would lose too much in fines and fees from arrest warrants.
Supporters say they are confident the bill will pass, but they are running out of time: the bill has yet to be approved by the State Plenary Assembly, and then by the State Senate before the closing of the legislative session at the end of May.
Washington wonders how else the courts will try to punish people who do not pay their fines and fees. Nevada already suspends thousands of people’s licenses each year for non-payment.
The bill “solves part of the problem because you don’t need a warrant,” Washington said. “But I can’t believe they won’t just ask for something else.”