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April 16, 2014

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Nevada Supreme Court to start fall hearings with rulings on medical marijuana law, casino markers case

The Nevada Supreme Court opens its fall hearings next Monday, tackling such issues as the constitutionality of a medical marijuana law and the conviction of a high roller who didn’t pay his markers in Las Vegas.

The court has been in recess since July, only handling its backlog and ruling on emergency petitions.

In fiscal year 2012, there were 2,500 appeals filed, and the seven-member court disposed of 2,270. To help with the heavy caseload, the court is advocating for the creation of an intermediate appeals court based in Las Vegas.

The Nevada Legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment regarding the intermediate court that will go before voters next year. State Sens. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, and Greg Brower, R-Reno, have established a political action committee to push voters to approve the amendment.

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The first case on the Nevada Supreme Court’s agenda is an appeal of the ruling by Clark County District Judge Donald Mosley declaring the original medical marijuana law unconstitutional.

Voters approved the use of medical marijuana, but the law came under attack because it did not set up a delivery system.

Mosley ruled the law was vague and would prevent the sale of the drug to valid marijuana card holders. He called the law “ridiculous" and said that, in effect, it "would make impossible any commercial distribution of medical marijuana.”

In making the ruling against the law, Mosley also dismissed drug trafficking and other charges against two men who operated a co-op from which those with state-issued medical cards believed they could legally buy marijuana. Leonard Schwingdorf and Nathan Hamilton operated the dispensary in Las Vegas and asked customers for a donation to support the business. An undercover police officer with a medical marijuana card visited the business several times and acquired the drug after making the “donation,” and the two men were arrested and their dispensary was shut down.

The Clark County District Attorney's Office wants the Nevada Supreme Court to overturn Mosley's ruling — which differed from a ruling by District Court Judge Doug Smith, who let indictments against six people arrested in a separate dispensary raid stand — and allow criminal charges to be pursued against those who sold marijuana.

Segerblom, who authored a 2013 law that permits commercial sales, said this decision is important even though the new law is in effect because there are others who face prosecution under the old law.

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In a case to be heard Tuesday, high roller Harel Zahavi is accused of writing gaming markers in 2008 worth $384,000 at the Venetian, Hard Rock, Palazzo and Caesar’s Palace that he did not pay off.

He had been a steady player, established lines of credit, and had paid off his previous markers slowly with winnings and by selling his businesses in California, according to the case. But when Zahavi did not meet the payment deadline for the markers, the casinos gave him a 10-day notice, and when the markers were not redeemed, they were deposited in the banks, where there was not enough cash to satisfy the markers.

Zahavi was convicted in 2011 of passing checks without sufficient funds, was placed on probation for up to five years and was ordered to pay restitution.

Lawyers for Zahavi maintain that “Nevada’s bad check statute is facially unconstitutional because, under both the federal and Nevada constitutions, a person cannot be imprisoned for failing to pay a debt except in cases of fraud.” The argued that the payback dates essentially make the markers short-term loans.

The District Attorney’s Office, in asking the court to uphold the conviction, said it is not unusual for a casino to delay depositing the marker in the bank after the agreed payment date, but this delay does not change the character of the marker as a check. In signing the marker, the player attests he has sufficient funds to cover the debt, the District Attorney’s Office argues.

Nevada casinos last fiscal year wrote off $128 million in bad debts, including unpaid markers, according to the state’s Gaming Abstract.

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