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In Nevada, drivers can be arrested for unpaid tickets. Activists are fighting to change that.

Born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, Washington said she’d never been pulled over, let alone received a ticket, before moving to Nevada. When she was stopped around Las Vegas — sometimes for speeding, sometimes for careless driving — she also got cited for secondary offenses like driving without proof of insurance, expired tags, no registration or an expired license.

When she failed to pay the tickets on time, she heard from collection agencies. She went on payment plans. None of it brought her much closer to closing out her growing debt. She tried switching to public transportation, but shuttling among work, babysitters, therapists and schools was virtually impossible.

So she kept driving. And she kept getting tickets.

Washington acknowledged that some of the stops were legitimate, but others she said she believed were the result of officers 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 off with a warning.

The traffic cases were spread across several Las Vegas-area jurisdictions, making it difficult to keep track of everything she’d been accused of, how much she owed and where she could go to resolve them. She took out payday loans to pay some of the tickets, fell behind on the installments, and ended up having her paychecks garnished for two years.

“Listening to my story, people may say, ‘Jess, just keep your stuff in order.’ But people don’t realize it’s hard if you’re a single mother trying to pay the fines and fees and take care of your kids and pay your rent and you need to drive to get to work,” Washington said. “It’s a domino effect, and you could wind up homeless.”

Fines and fees for traffic violations have increased “dramatically” in Nevada as a way to offset government budget shortfalls over the years, according to a study by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for the Fines and Fees Justice Center. One fee, first imposed by the state in 1980 to offset losses in federal funding for courts, began as a $10 “administrative assessment” on all misdemeanors. It has grown to $120, and is one of many fees that help fund courts and other parts of the criminal justice system.

The longer a bill goes unpaid, the more fines and fees are added to it. For example, a $300 ticket given to Washington in 2014 for driving with a suspended registration grew to $1,280.

Bench warrants — arrest orders typically issued by a judge when someone fails to show up for court — play a significant role in the spiraling of traffic debt in Nevada, increasing a person’s court debt by hundreds of dollars. In addition to Nevada, Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming also all treat traffic citations as misdemeanor crimes, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

In other states, traffic violations are treated as civil infractions. Nearly two dozen states decriminalized these violations during a movement in the 1970s and 1980s to cut the cost and time of processing traffic tickets in criminal courts, according to Jordan Blair Woods, a University of Arkansas criminologist.

The University of Nevada researchers looked at Las Vegas Municipal Court and found that 83 percent of 102,000 bench warrants issued from 2012 to 2020 were for unpaid traffic fines. Most of those warrants were for administrative infractions like failure to pay, driving without a license or having no insurance. The majority of warrants were issued to people who lived in the Las Vegas region’s poorest areas. Black people make up 13 percent of Clark County’s population, but 44 percent of the open warrants.

“Ultimately, the Nevada system of fines and fees criminalizes poverty and reinforces racial disparities,” the researchers concluded.

As her traffic debt mounted, Washington tried to divert her attention to work and community activism. She started support groups for parents of autistic children and Black women and performed spoken-word poetry. The Las Vegas City Council honored her for all of that work in 2018. She also started an event-planning business specializing in yard displays.

“I do all of this from the heart, but I also overindulge myself into giving back in order to not deal with the reality of what’s going on in my life,” Washington said by phone while making deliveries with her son in tow. “My go-to is to get more involved in the community.”

But she couldn’t do much of it without driving.

A few years ago, Washington became friends with Leisa Moseley, an activist and political consultant who had her own experience with being unable to pay minor traffic tickets that led to bench warrants, fees and debt that reached about $5,000. Moseley had to drain her savings account to clear her name. She now worked as Nevada state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, trying to change policies that had nearly ruined her.

Moseley said her ordeal, and Washington’s, showed that anyone can get sucked into traffic ticket debt.

“Here we had a very well-respected woman, a poet, an activist who is holding women’s empowerment lunches and advocating for her autistic son, and behind the scenes she is struggling with debt related to traffic violations,” Moseley said. “Seeing her you wouldn’t ever know she was looking over her shoulder every day hoping the police weren’t behind her running her license plate.”

Last year, lawyers at the Misdemeanor Clinic at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas asked Moseley for the names of people who needed help extracting themselves from traffic debt. She told them about Washington.

The clinic’s co-director, Eve Hanan, saw Washington as an “organized and responsible person” trapped in an unjust system.

“Her case is not unusual,” Hanan said.

She and her colleagues agreed to help.

Hope for ‘a clean slate’

Lawyers and students at the clinic went through court records for Washington’s open cases, added up what she owed and tracked down outstanding warrants. They requested new hearings, negotiated with prosecutors and pleaded with judges, who have the power to waive or reduce people’s traffic debts.

With their help, Washington closed four cases and got a fine reduced and a warrant cleared in a fifth, Hanan said.

“It is almost impossible to do that as a single person without a lawyer,” Hanan said.

Still, Washington has three open cases, including two that triggered bench warrants. Washington said she didn’t know that she had been at risk of arrest until this week, when the clinic stepped in and persuaded a judge to put her on a payment plan and clear the warrants.

Washington said her event-planning business has been successful enough that she now can afford to keep her insurance, license, registration and tags up to date. That means she is very close to having “a clean slate,” she said.

The decriminalization bill would help her maintain that clean slate, she said.

The bill is under consideration by the state Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, which on Monday heard testimony roughly evenly split between supporters and opponents. The opposition included representatives of cities who said their agencies would lose too much in fines and fees from bench warrants

Supporters say they are confident that the bill will pass, but they are running out of time: The bill still needs to be approved by the full state Assembly, and then the state Senate before the legislative session closes at the end of May.

Washington wonders what other ways the courts will try to punish people who don’t pay their fines and fees. Nevada already suspends thousands of people’s licenses every year for failure to pay.

The bill “solves one part of the problem because you don’t have to have the warrant,” Washington said. “But I can’t believe they won’t just ask for something else.”

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