ACLU of Nevada Renews Call for an Independent Monitor of Metro

LAS VEGAS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada today hails the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling that the Clark County coroner’s inquest process does not violate due process rights of involved police officers, and the ACLU of Nevada calls on the Nevada State Legislature and/or the Clark County Commission to fix a separation of powers issue that the Nevada Supreme Court ruled prevents justices of the peace from presiding over Clark County coroner’s inquests.

The ACLU of Nevada had filed an amicus brief supporting the defense in the case, Jorge Hernandez et al. v. Karen P. Bennett-Haron et al. (Case No. 59861), and ACLU of Nevada Staff Attorney Katrina Rogers made oral arguments to the Nevada Supreme Court at its hearing on June 5, 2012.

The ACLU of Nevada today also renewed its call, first made in January 2012 in its petition (with the NAACP of Las Vegas) to the U.S. Department of Justice for a civil rights-oriented “patterns-and-practices” investigation of the Metro Las Vegas Police Department, for an independent monitor’s office to be established to scrutinize Metro’s operations on an ongoing basis.

The ACLU of Nevada restated its support for an independent monitor – similar to those in place or proposed in Denver, Seattle, New York City, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington (D.C.) – both because an independent monitor is needed and also because today’s Nevada Supreme Court decision delays once again Clark County coroner’s inquests; the last one was held in September 2010 and a substantial backlog has built up. The current Clark County coroner’s inquest was designed by a diverse community committee in the fall of 2010 and approved by the Clark County Commission in December that year. Clark County has had a coroner’s inquest system since 1969.

“While we have supported the idea of an independent monitor’s office since January, the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision – indeed, the continued opposition to a public, fair, and non-adversarial inquest process by a major police union and others – makes the formation of an independent monitor’s office all the more critical,” said Dane S. Claussen, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nevada. “In addition, an independent monitor’s office could and would examine all aspects of Metro’s operations and not only fatal uses of force that have not resulted in criminal charges against police, which has been the narrow scope of the coroner’s inquest system.”

In recent months, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department began releasing copies of its internal investigation reports on numerous fatal uses of force, and District Attorney Steve Wolfson began releasing statements about why his office has decided to not prosecute various officers involved in those fatal uses of force, with the sole recent exception of referring the Stanley Gibson killing to a grand jury.

“While the publicly released reports shine some light on the facts in these incidents, they are no substitute for a coroner’s inquest,” said Claussen. “One must also remember that neither Metro nor the District Attorney’s office is required to release these reports, and they could stop doing so at any minute, with or without a change in who the sheriff is or who the district attorney is.”

In its amicus brief, and in its oral arguments, the ACLU of Nevada made several major points at law: that the District Court was correct in ruling that the new coroner’s inquest process does not violate the Nevada Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine; the District Court was correct in ruling that police officers may be subject to a coroner’s inquest process although other citizens committing similar acts would not be; the District Court was correct in ruling that police officers’ due process rights are not violated by the coroner’s inquest process; the District Court was correct in ruling that officers’ claim of due process violations was not legally “ripe” for review because no inquest had been held under the new system; and that the plaintiffs/appellants raised new issues on appeal that they had not raised in their complaint filed in District Court. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise only on the separation of powers question and the ripeness question.