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Court Strikes Down Revised Coroner’s Inquest Process

Posted by: on Thu, Nov 01, 2012

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Nevada court strikes down revised coroner’s inquest process

Nevada Supreme Court ruing on Clark County inquest process

By Francis McCabe
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL

Posted: Oct. 25, 2012 | 10:16 a.m.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruling Thursday to strike down the revised coroner’s inquest was being viewed as a victory by both proponents and opponents of the fact-finding process.

The high court said the county ordinance was unconstitutional because of a legal technicality. However, it affirmed the inquest did not violate the due process of law enforcement officers.

Richard Boulware, vice president of the Las Vegas NAACP, said the ruling vindicates the revisions made to the process.

Chris Collins, head of the Police Protective Association, in a statement said the police union “applauds the Nevada Supreme Court in its ruling that the Clark County coroner’s inquest process is a violation of the state constitution.”

County commissioners changed the inquest process last year in response to critics who called the previous version biased in favor of police. The new system added a lawyer to represent the family of the dead, an addition that police union leaders said transformed a fact-finding hearing into a fault-finding one.

In the ruling, all seven justices agreed that the “inquest scheme,” which now calls for a justice of the peace to oversee the proceedings, “unconstitutionally intrude(s) upon the Legislature’s exclusive constitutional authority to determine the jurisdiction of justices of the peace.”

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said his reading of the decision indicated the commission simply needs to adjust the language regarding the role of the justice of the peace. “I take it that we’d have to change that portion of it,” Sisolak said.

He added the next move is to consult the district attorney’s office on the ordinance’s language.

District Attorney Steve Wolfson said that if asked, he would be willing to work with the commission to determine the appropriate language for the ordinance. He said the ruling suggests that once the commission changes the ordinance to comply with the Supreme Court directive, the inquest process can move forward.

Boulware wants the commission to act quickly to remedy the legal defect.

“It’s unacceptable for us not to have an open and public process in place,” he said.

The high court was ruling on an appeal by Nevada Highway Patrol troopers involved in the August 2010 death of Eduardo Lopez-Hernandez, who died after fighting with troopers who then shot him with a Taser stun gun more than a dozen times on U.S. Highway 95.

In a statement, the troopers’ lawyer Josh Reisman said, “Clark County overstepped its bounds by usurping the state legislature’s exclusive authority over the justice courts’ jurisdiction.”

He added, “The justice of the peace’s lack of jurisdiction to preside over the new inquest process is one of several aspects of the ordinance that we believe are flawed, and we feel vindicated by the Supreme Court’s conclusion that the entire inquest scheme for officer-involved deaths must be struck down as unconstitutional.”

However, the decision, written by Justice James Hardesty, noted that the officer’s main contention on appeal, that their due process was being violated, was void.

“The inquest process constitutes an investigatory, rather than an adjudicatory proceeding. As a result, due process protections are not triggered by the inquest process,” the decision said.

Meanwhile, Boulware and Dane Claussen, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, want an inquest into each of the 17 fatal incidents involving police that District Attorney Steve Wolfson already has reviewed and found not to be criminal.

An 18th fatal shooting, that of veteran Stanley Gibson, is being reviewed by a county grand jury, a process closed to the public and expected to take weeks.

While state law allows Wolfson or a grand jury to rule on such matters, Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy decides whether to take those cases to inquests for further review.

Murphy said that decision will be made after he consults the County Commission.

There are currently two fatal incidents involving local law enforcement agencies that Wolfson is reviewing.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he hadn’t had a chance yet to review the ruling and declined to comment.

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.