The Secretary of State's Office ruled Thursday the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles cannot deny organizers of petition drives such as the one to recall Gov. Kenny Guinn permission to collect signatures at DMV offices.
In addition, the ruling says DMV can't maintain a "blanket policy" barring all petition groups from setting up inside those offices.
Christopher Hansen, an officer in the Independent American Party and vice chairman of the recall committee, appealed to Secretary of State Dean Heller after his signature gatherers were threatened with arrest by DMV officials at the East Sahara office in Las Vegas Sept. 8 and harassed at the Henderson office Sept. 11.
"Mr. Heller's decision will make it easier for all Nevadans who want to get directly involved in the political process to do so without the threat of arrest that has occurred so many times in the past," Hansen said.
Heller's office is charged with resolving access issues under the state law guaranteeing political signature gatherers access to public property.
The appeal ruling authored by Chief Deputy Renee Parker and Elections Deputy Ronda Moore, both attorneys, agreed Hansen's workers were denied use of a reasonable area on the Sahara office premises to gather signatures Sept. 8. The ruling rejected DMV's claim its officers were trying to clarify the process when they ran the group off.
"This statement is disingenuous because we cannot imagine any circumstance where an order to vacate the premises under threat of arrest legitimately can be construed as a clarification of the process," the ruling states.
The ruling also says citizen groups can't be denied because they failed to provide advance notice to the agency.
Hansen also asked his teams be allowed to set up inside DMV offices around the state. The law leaves that option open, but DMV has long had a policy absolutely forbidding signature gatherers from setting up inside its offices.
While the appeal ruling doesn't grant Hansen's group inside access, it does say a blanket policy forbidding it violates the intent of the law.
"Such refusal to deviate from a blanket policy could result in unreasonable designations," the ruling says.
It says Moore and an investigator who toured the Southern Nevada DMV offices found certain offices where signature gatherers could set up inside without disrupting business. The ruling notes DMV is entitled to eject any signature gatherer who disrupts business or harasses customers.
"Moreover, the only time we envision that DMV would ever be required to designate an area indoors would be when there is no question that a reasonable area does not exist outdoors," the ruling states, directing that decision be made on a case-by-case basis.
Hansen applauded both the ruling and the speed with which Heller responded. He expressed concern when filing the appeal that, with only 90 days to complete the petition drive, their chances were being damaged by every day's delay.
"That Heller's office went out and took pictures of several DMV offices and worked into the late hours of Sunday night is impressive to say the least," he said.
He said the ruling confirms his understanding of the law: that no advance notice is required for signature gatherers, that they must be given a "reasonable" space to collect names and that a blanket policy prohibiting them from setting up inside violates the law.
He asked Heller to file charges against the government officials involved saying they "violated the law and cost our recall movement so much time and money that cannot be recouped."
But the ruling states there is no evidence DMV officials discriminated against the group based on the message or content of the petition.
In fact, it says the primary reason for the law guaranteeing petition drives access to public property is the historic DMV policy banning access to all groups.