What is a Coroner’s Inquest?
The Coroner’s Office is a government agency that investigates all deaths from unnatural causes. The Coroner reports the results of its investigation to the District Attorney’s office, which is responsible for determining if a criminal prosecution should proceed. When a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) officer is involved in the death of a member of the public, the death is automatically investigated through a fact-finding process called a Coroner’s inquest. An inquest involves questioning the officers and witnesses present about the circumstances surrounding the death.
Why was the ACLU of Nevada Concerned?
We place trust – not blind trust – in our law enforcement agencies to uphold the law and keep us safe. We have a democratic right and duty to hold law enforcement accountable for its actions. When an officer is involved in the death of a member of the public, the public has a right to know what happened through a full, independent investigation into the death.
Such investigations are only meaningful when it is open to the public, and is just and fair to both the officer and the victim. Without openness and a sense of justice and fairness for all involved, the public’s confidence in its law enforcement is undermined.
To achieve these goals, the ACLU of Nevada believes that any investigation of an officer-involved death should :
- Allow the attorneys for both the officers and the victims to participate directly in the process and ask questions during the inquest;
- Have a neutral presenter of facts that is not the District Attorney’s Office;
- Be limited to relevant questions about the decedent and the involved officers;
- Make determinations of fact and leave decisions about whether criminal charges should proceed to the District Attorney;
- Follow the same Rules of Evidence used in courtrooms; and
- Be fully transparent and open to the public.
What Changes Were Made?
Following public outcry over two high-profile police shootings that were found “justified” through a Coroner’s inquest, the Clark County Commission created a panel to review the inquest process. The panel recommended a set of changes, which the Commission adopted.
Some key changes made to the Coroner’s inquest process are:
- Allowing officers’ attorneys to directly participate in the proceedings;
- Allowing an ombudsperson who represents the interests of the decedent and the public participate in the proceedings and ask questions of witnesses;
- Ensuring that the scope of questioning is narrowed to only relevant questions about the decedent and the involved officers;
- Stripping the inquest of any findings of fault and instead making objective findings of fact; and
- Posting a video and the transcript of inquests online.
News & Updates
- July 6, 2011 - U.S. District Judge Philip Pro ruled that the new Coroner's Inquest process does not violate officers' due process rights.
- August 28, 2011 - The ACLU of Nevada files a motion to intervene in the suit challenging the new process.
- June 21, 2011 - The Las Vegas Police Protective Association filed suit on behalf of LVMPD officers challenging the constitutionality of the new Coroner's Inquest. The three officers were involved in the first shooting that was to be investigated under the new process.
- January 18, 2010 - Clark County begins search for ombudsperson. The ACLU of Nevada questions certain elements of the selection process that could compromise the independence of the ombudsperson.
- December 7, 2010 - The Clark County Commission adopted the Review Panel’s recommended changes. (“County Commission OKs changes to coroner’s inquest process”, Las Vegas Sun).
- November 24, 2010 - The ACLU of Nevada debunks the claims of the Police Protective Association that officers will not participate in the inquest if it is “adversarial.”
- November 8, 2010 - Review Panel approved recommended changes to the Coroner’s inquest process. Listen to ACLU of Nevada Legal Director, Maggie McLetchie, discuss the importance of the recommended changes on KNPR. (“Coroner’s inquest review panel proposes changes”, Las Vegas Sun)
- October 5, 2010 - The ACLU of Nevada testified at a meeting of the Clark County Commissioners and urged reform of the inquest process. The Commission created a Review Panel to propose changes to the Coroner’s Inquest process. ACLU of Nevada Legal Director, Maggie McLetchie, participated on the panel. The Review Panel was given a month to discuss and approve recommendations to the County Commission.
- September 22-24, 2010 - Televised inquest of the July 10 police shooting of Erik Scott outside of a Costco in Summerlin. The ACLU of Nevada requested that Scott’s family be allowed to have an attorney participate in the proceedings, but that request was denied. The jury found the actions of the officers to be justified.
- August 21-22, 2010 - Inquest into the June 11 police shooting of Trevon Cole. The ACLU of Nevada attended the inquest as an observer and an “interested party.” The jury found the actions of the officers to be justified.
- August 19, 2010 - Local community groups, victims families, and citizen’s come together seeking reform of the Coroner’s inquest process.
- May 19, 2010 – Police pursuit of a suspected drunk driver, Ivan Carillo, ended in a multi-vehicle crash, injuring one driver and killing Carrillo. The Coroner declined to hold an inquest. Clark County Code § 2.12.080(c) mandates that “[w]hen an officer [is] involved in the death of an individual, the coroner will call for an inquest.” The ACLU of Nevada sent a letter to the Coroner, and in response the Coroner stated that an inquest was not held because the District Attorney’s Office was filing criminal charges.