Nevada Highway Patrol Officers Try to Derail Inquest

The District Attorney Says

No Criminal Charges Pending

Still NHP Troopers Seek To Avoid Inquest

In a plea filed today with the Nevada Supreme Court the five Nevada Highway Patrol officers involved in the August 2010 death of Eduardo Lopez-Hernandez asked the court to halt the May 3-4 inquest into his death. If inquest is not stopped by the NSC, it would be the first inquest held since the process was changed in December, 2010.

The process was revamped after two highly publicized inquests found two controversial shootings justified, resulting in criticism that the old system always favored police. Not a single police death had been ruled criminal in more than 100 inquests conducted since the process was adopted in the 1970’s.

The inquest jury’s finding of the Metro Officer Bryan Yant’s killing of an unarmed  Trevon Cole during a late night drug raid prompted the community to demand the process be  overhauled. Yant, an officer with a documented history of lying under oath, provided a version of events inconsistent with both the physical evidence and the testimony of other officers. Yant’s history of intentionally deceiving the court system was never provided to the jury despite a judge declaring Yant had provided testimony tantamount to perjury less than a week prior to the Cole inquest.

The Clark County Commission changed it in December 2010 providing the family of the person killed by police the representation of an appointed  ombudsman who would be given access to key evidence and investigative files. The commission also renamed the jury to an inquest panel and removed their ability to determine if the shooting was criminal or justifiable. The panel’s responsibility was changed to purely determining the overall facts of the case, nothing more.

That didn’t stop The Las Vegas Police Protective Association (LVPPA), which represents the majority of police officers in Clark County, from complaining the new system  is no longer aimed at determining the facts, but instead is an adversarial system pitting officers against the families of those killed. On behalf of several Metro Officers the LVPPA filed suit claiming the new process violated the Constitutional rights of its officers.

U.S. District Judge Philip Pro ruled in December of last year the coroner’s inquest system as revised is not a system that jeopardizes officers’ rights as it’s intended to determine the facts about a shooting, and not to assign guilt or innocence.

“The inquest is designed to be an investigatory body, not an adjudicatory or accusatory body. It does not adjudicate any legal rights. It does not recommend any particular action to any other entity, including the district attorney’s office. Whether to initiate criminal charges following an inquest remains solely within the discretion of the prosecuting authorities,”

-U.S. District Judge Philip Pro

U.S. District Judge Philip Pro

“The fact that officers may face reputational harms, may suffer adverse employment actions or may become the subject of a future civil or criminal proceeding are speculative collateral consequences that do not trigger due process guarantees.” Pro ruled

Pro also noted that police officers in essence investigate themselves in an officer involved death, and their favorable relationship with the district attorney’s office, one the average citizen does not enjoy, requires the police be subjected to different procedures than the public, “ensure both actual meaningful review of police conduct.”

The LVPPA appealed that decision with the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but there has been no word yet on when a decision from the Ninth is expected.

Five NHP offficers, including Troopers Scott Simon, Heather Neely and Jorge Hernandez have petitioned the state Supreme Court to halt next week’s coroner’s inquest because “the new investigative process ‘performs an accusative function because it is designed to find specifically identified police officers responsible for crimes and to publicize their alleged wrongdoing.”

The Supreme Court hasn’t yet indicated when it will rule on the motion that next week’s inquest be halted until the issues about the new inquest process are fully litigated.