The Nevada coroner’s inquest process faces a forced change after the Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled that though the process did not violate the due process of law enforcement officers; the process was unconstitutional because of a legal technicality.
In August 2010, Eduardo Lopez-Hernandez was killed after several Nevada Highway Patrol troopers shot him with a Taser stun gun more than a dozen times. Under Nevada law, the coroner’s inquest process required a jury to review all officer involved shootings to determine if the officers acted properly. In 2010, the Clark County Commission approved new inquest procedures which appointed an ombudsman to represent the family of any person killed by officers, and release key evidence and investigative files.
Nevada Highway Patrol officers challenged the new inquest procedures claiming they were unfair. One day before the coroner’s inquest was to begin, the Nevada Supreme Court issued a stay to allow more time to review briefs filed.
Clark County Commission officials argued that the new inquest procedures were fair because the inquest process still was a fact-finding investigation. Nevada Highway Patrol officers claimed the appointment of an ombudsman changed the coroner’s inquest process from a fact-finding investigation to an adversarial process. Further, by pitting the officers against the family of the deceased, the officers were more likely to be found guilty of misconduct, which was a violation of their due process.
The Hernandez case was combined with four other cases. After review the Nevada Supreme Court found that the officers’ due process rights were not violated because even with the new inquest procedures, the inquest process continued to be investigatory rather than adjudicatory. However the Court ruled the new procedures were unconstitutional because the requirement of only a justice of the peace to serve as a presiding officer in coroner’s inquest proceedings regarding officer-involved deaths intruded on the Legislature’s exclusive authority over the jurisdiction of justices of the peace.
No coroner inquests have been held since 2010. To get the process started again, Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani has now proposed a change to the county code that would remove the requirement of only using a justice of the peace to preside over the inquest proceedings. Clark County Commission officials are also expected to consult with the district attorney’s office. Currently, the district attorney’s office is reviewing two officer involved shootings which resulted in fatalities.
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